Hopewell Township says it has reached a settlement “in principle” with three separate landowners who are interested parties in its affordable housing litigation.
The agreements are intended to help end the township’s ongoing litigation at a Mercer County Superior Court trial with the Fair Share Housing Center over their obligations to zone for affordable housing.
Subsequent to the settlement announcement, the planning board voted 6-1 in its June 22 meeting to recommend to the township committee that land parcels on both the west and east sides of Scotch Road meet criteria set by state law that qualify them to be designated areas in need of redevelopment.
The Scotch Road area has long been identified as a target for new residential development would that help the township meet its affordable housing obligations, and meet housing demand in the township in general. The Fair Share Housing Center, a Cherry Hill-based nonprofit appointed by the state to litigate on behalf of people who need affordable housing, has argued that many towns need to act more urgently and decisively to satisfy their fair share obligations.
Many other Mercer County towns—including East Windsor, Robbinsville and Lawrence—have recently agreed to settle with the Fair Share Housing Center. With Hopewell joining these towns in settling, West Windsor will be the only Mercer County town left fighting the Fair Share Housing Center in court.
Hopewell’s settlements were to be filed with Superior Court Judge Mary Jacobsen, who will review the proposed settlements and schedule a fairness hearing if they meet the court’s requirements. The hearing will be open to the public, and the public will be notified in advance of the hearing date.
The township says the settlement agreements are part of a broader affordable housing plan that seeks to address the township’s present and prospective need to provide affordable housing. Hopewell already has a number of credits towards its third-round affordable housing needs, according to the statement the township made announcing the settlements. It will have approximately 10 years to fulfill the balance of its obligations.
Township attorney Linda Galella said in the statement that these settlements will help ensure Hopewell maintains control of the affordable housing process to preserve its rural character, something that has been a major point of concern for town officials.
Galella added that settlement agreements also typically provide a provision for reducing a municipality’s obligations or give credit towards future obligations.
Mayor Kevin Kuchinski, a member of the planning board, was absent for the June 22 meeting, as was Marylou Ferrara. Julie Blake, who is also on the township committee, recused herself for the redevelopment portion of the meeting, as did alternate Milind Khare, an employee of Princeton Health Care, a competitor of Capital Health.
In the meeting the board, guided by a document provided by township planner Frank Banisch, went parcel by parcel discussing whether the land in question, owned by CF Hopewell CC&L LLC, Hopewell Township and Capital Health Systems, Inc., met redevelopment area criteria.
The board determined that most of the lots are areas in need of redevelopment based on three of the criteria set out in the state’s Local Redevelopment and Housing Law: they are areas containing buildings or improvements that are dilapidated or obsolete, they are areas where there is a growing or total lack of proper utilization, or they are areas where a redevelopment designation would be “consistent with smart growth.”
After its discussion, the board heard public comments, with many residents expressing opposition to the redevelopment designation.
Michael L. Pisauro Jr., of Titus Mill Road, said to call agricultural land on both the east and west sides of Scotch Road “unproductive” was “not right.”
Paul McCoy of Dublin Road, suggested that the owners of the property ought not to have bought the land knowing that development of the land would require major planning changes. “We’re being hoodwinked,” he said.
Former mayor Harvey Lester, a resident of Continental Lane in Titusville, read from prepared remarks in which he suggested that the planning board is an “obedient servant” of the township committee.
“Anyone with common sense could simply look at the fields on the west side of Scotch Road and instantly conclude that qualifying the west side for redevelopment is insane. But this board has its marching orders, and finding against redevelopment is not in the cards tonight, because meeting criteria is in the eye of the beholder,” Lester said.
Before voting, members of the committee gave their last remarks on the issue. Planning board member Russell Swanson, a former architect, said he has worked on many redevelopment project in his career and “going the redevelopment process would be the better way.”
Board member Rex Parker acknowledged that some people would rather see development only on Scotch Road’s east side. “Ultimately, the west side is linked to the east. We don’t like that fact, but it’s something that we have to deal with,” he said.
Board chair Karen Murphy concluded with the objectives of the planning board: “This board has always tried to preserve land, but our job is not to preserve, it is to plan. We try to preserve, but we stand for growth, smart growth. Doing it the right way. We are not opposed to growth in the township.”
The board voted 6-1 to confirm to the township committee that the areas in question qualified for redevelopment based on the criteria, along with many corrections and qualifications from the board. Lawrence Clarke, who had earlier called Banisch’s redevelopment report “biased,” was the lone dissenter.
With the planning board’s recommendation, the committee may now adopt a resolution designating the land as a redevelopment area. State law mandates that the municipality then adopt by ordinance a redevelopment plan for the area before redevelopment can begin.
Laura Pollack contributed to this article.