by By LESLIE MURRAY
December 10, 2008
The S.Hekemian Group--a developer seeking to rezone a section of Birchwood Avenue to build 400 residential units where two office buildings currently stand--has filed a builder's remedy lawsuit against Cranford.
The lawsuit, which was served to the township on Dec. 1, was filed in New Jersey Superior Court on Nov. 12 and names the township, the Township Committee, and the Planning Board as defendants.
In the suit, Hekemian as Cranford Development Associates (CDA) states that "Cranford has failed to create sufficient realistic opportunities for the construction of safe, decent housing affordable to low and moderate income households."
The suit makes specific mention of the Mt. Laurel decision, a landmark case that found municipalities in New Jersey responsible for providing affordable housing for low and moderate income individuals. By filing an affordable housing plan with the Council on Affordable Housing (COAH), the state office responsible for determining affordable housing requirements, towns can protect themselves against builder's remedy lawsuits.
Cranford is not certified by COAH. The township is currently in the process of obtaining such certification, a process that has been ongoing since work to rewrite the Master Plan began in 2006.
Another builder's remedy lawsuit was filed against the township earlier this year, by developer Lehigh Acquisitions. The case remains in litigation.
Within the current suit, The S.Hekemian Group also contents that the Planning Board has failed to create zoning laws that allows for affordable housing and that under municipal land use law, the board is not allowed to decide if rezoning would be appropriate at the site.
"CDA has made a good faith effort to secure voluntary rezoning of this property for inclusionary development," the suit contends.
In September, The S.Hekemian Group, a developer that twice entered negotiations with the township on the Riverfront Redevelopment Project only to have the township call of talks both times, purchased 215 and 235 Birchwood Avenue for $6 million from Elberon Development Company. Those properties were the subject of an ultimately unsuccessful age-restricted project by Woodmont Properties in 2007.
Representatives from The S.Hekemian Group first appeared at the Oct. 7 meeting of the Township Committee when they spoke about building a residential complex at the Birchwood Avenue site.
At that time, Peter Hekemian along with Stephen Eisdorfer, of Hill Wallack LLP, an attorney who specializes in land use litigation representing The S.Hekemian Group, informed the committee that the developer planned three buildings on the 16-acre site, comprised of a four-story over-parking residential building with 118 units, a four-story building with 301 residential units, and a 512-stall precast parking deck. Of the 419 proposed residential units, 63 would be affordable housing units. At the conclusion of their initial presentation, the developer said they would seek a response from the township on Oct. 21.
While the Township Committee did not comment at that time, they did refer the developer to the Planning Board to make an application, with Mayor Bob Puhak sending a letter asking the board to consider the application immediately.
This week, Zoning Officer Robert Hudak said that to his recollection no one from The S.Hekemian Group contacted the zoning office to make an application or to schedule an appearance before the Planning Board.
The Township Committee first discussed the suit during a closed door executive session at the Monday, Dec. 8, meeting.
Speaking on behalf of The S.Hekemian Group, Eisdorfer told the Chronicle his client had decided to file suit after meeting with the township on multiple occasions and finding that the township seemed determined to continue the planning process without allowing the developer to have input.
"We filed suit basically to protect our rights," Eisdorfer said. "It is still our hope that the town will work with us," he said.
Puhak said that that Township Committee and legal counsel are still considering options and will file a response to the suit "in due time." He said that the suit "did not make logical sense."
"The township is following due process here as it had promised to do. We have sought out professional review and input. We referred (the developer's proposal) to the Planning Board," Puhak said.
"It was disappointing to see Hekemian file suit against us after they indicated that they were willing to work with us," he said. "This should be viewed as a clear indicator of what their intentions are here."
Leslie Murray is a staff writer for The Chronicle. She can be reached at (908)464-5214 or firstname.lastname@example.org.