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Court Approves Construction of 360 Residential Units on Birchwood Avenue

Mayor Daniel Aschenbach plans to appeal the decision.

By Toniann Antonelli
July 29, 2011
The Cranford Patch

Cranford officials plan to appeal a decision made Friday by a Superior Court judge that will allow a developer to construct 360 residential units at the quiet corner of 215 Birchwood Ave., a street that's prone to flooding.

"Cranford has been subject of a builder remedy lawsuit," Mayor Daniel Aschenbach said after the court's decision was handed down.

The mayor has, for months, insisted that he would file an appeal if the development project was approved. "We believe the site specific conditions are such that any development will create more flooding and problems for a larger area of the community," Aschenbach said.

The proposed development called for the construction of 419 residential units on a 15.8-acre lot in Cranford’s 0-1 Low Density Office Building Zone. The property is surrounded by single-family residential zones.

"One of New Jersey’s highest rated schools is located two blocks away and is already at capacity. The judge now has given its ruling that 360 units can be built," Aschenbach said.

The S. Hekemian Group of Paramus bought the property in October 2008 and proposed 356 market rate units and 63 units of low- and moderate-income housing. It then filed a suit in New Jersey Superior Court claiming that Cranford is in violation of its constitutional duty to create sufficient opportunity for the construction of low- and moderate-income housing. Peter Hekemian, the developer, could not be reached for comment immediately following the decision.

More than a year ago, a special master was appointed to study the case and present findings to the judge. The special master, Elizabeth McKenzie, released a report stating that the project should go forward, indicating that she did not give much weight to residents' concerns about traffic and density, given the township's constitutional obligation to provide affordable housing to its residents.

During a special Town Hall meeting early last month that allowed residents to voice their concerns on the "overdevelopment" of the property, Township Attorney Dan McCarthy recounted the Mount Laurel decisions, which state that every community in New Jersey has a constitutional obligation to allow for the building of affordable housing. The Council on Affordable Housing, or COAH, was created to prevent developers from building market-rate housing with only a handful of units used for affordable housing. Under COAH, projects that served people with disabilities and low-income seniors did not count as affordable housing.

In addition to the actual appeal of the decision, Aschenbach said the township will be asking Gov. Chris Christie to "incorporate in state legislation that communities be given an opportunity to put forward a plan to meet affordable housing that meets each community’s residential housing needs and not an arbitrary COAH number."
Further, Aschenbach said Cranford will request that a grant of $8 million be provided to the township to purchase the Birchwood tract for the development of a retention basin to protect residents from flooding.

The town will also ask that Cranford "be given an opportunity to implement its Housing Element through its local Affordable Housing Task Force before having to consider such enormous overdevelopment." It will also ask The State of New Jersey Mortgage Finance Agency consider Cranford for tax credit allocation.

"Cranford has a unique senior complex that benefits local and moderate income residents and a new development at the 555 South Ave. site would be a great benefit to the region," Aschenbach said. "Our point is Cranford has done many affordable housing projects. This one is over the top in a flood prone area."

In order to appeal the decision, the Township Committee must first pass an ordinance, the introduction of which will be on the agenda for Tuesday's meeting, Aschenbach said, adding that the governing body also plans to send a letter to the governor regarding the matter.

What do you think of the court's decision to approve the development of the Birchwood Avenue site? Do you agree with the decision to appeal to ruling? Tell us in the comments.