Affordable Housing Plan, Housing Element Approved By Planning Board, Township Council

Mark Healey, the township’s principal planner, describes the housing plan to the Planning Board April 24.

The township came one step closer April 24 to inoculating itself against lawsuits from developers who want to build housing in Franklin, and the potential of up to 3,000 more homes being built.

The Planning Board in a special meeting adopted a housing element and fair share plan that establishes that the township exceeds its obligation to provide for low-and moderate-income housing through 2025.

In a later meeting, the Township Council endorsed the plan.

The plan now goes back to a Superior Court judge for a formal hearing and final approval.

The plan sets 2,076 units as the township’s fair share of affordable housing through 2025. The township has met that goal, principal planner Mark Healey said, with 814 units already built, 249 units with site development approvals and 168 units included in current zoning, as well as 97 “surplus” units already built from a prior obligation round, the extension of housing restrictions on 315 current low- and moderate-income units and 519 bonus credits.

That totals out to 2,162 affordable units, “which exceeds the obligation that we’ve agreed upon for the settlement,” Healey said.

“The township is meeting its obligation though units already in existence, already under construction, already being contemplated,” Healey said. Most importantly, Healey said, the township is retaining control of its zoning.

The settlement to which Healey referred is between the township and the Fair Share Housing Center, an advocacy group for affordable housing.

Vince Dominach, the township’s economic development officer, told the board that not all towns in the state are in the same position as Franklin.

“The majority of municipalities in this state will not be in control of their own zoning,” he said. From an economic development standpoint, the fact that we don’t have to look at rezoning a CB (Central Business) or M1 (light industry) zone is extraordinary, it allows us to control what we’re doing.”

New Jersey towns have been required to accommodate the construction of low- and moderate-income housing since the state Supreme Court’s Mt. Laurel decision in 1972. In 1983, the court weighed in again with Mt. Laurel 2 – mandating that each town had a “fair share” obligation to meet and establishing penalties for towns that did not comply – and the state Legislature created the Fair Housing Act and the Council on Affordable Housing in 1985 to move the process along.

COAH, as it was known, established fair share obligations for towns twice, covering the periods 1987-1993 (Round 1) and 1993-1999 (Round 2). Since then, legal challenges and intervention by then-Gov. Chris Christie – dismantling COAH – delayed the creation of the third round of obligations.

As a result of the COAH dissolution, the state Supreme Court required all towns to submit affordable housing plans for Superior Court approval. Franklin did so in 2015, which spurred this housing element and agreement with the Fair Share Housing Center. The FSHC was granted “interested party” status by the state Supreme Court, which entitled it to enter into these settlement agreements with towns.

Towns that do not have the protection afforded by an approved plan risk so-called “builder’s remedy” suits, through which a judge can order a town that did not have a certified affordable housing plan to permit the creation of housing at a higher density than the zoning for a targeted tract of land would normally allow.

Township attorney Louis Rainone has said that striking this agreement saved the township from potential suits by at least four builders and a potential total of 3,000 more housing units in Franklin.

Planning Board members were pleased with the plan.

“To finally see something come to conclusion, that is concrete and actually protects us and is not in this limbo of continual lawsuits back and forth is reassuring,” said board chairman Michael Orsini. “The fact that we’re on the right side of it is even more reassuring. It was always a question of what will they come out with next and how many lawsuits will happen and when will we actually get a plan.”

“It’s a testament to the board and your staff that you guys have taken into consideration what you’re going to need, not just in the prior rounds, but going forward,” board attorney Peter Vignuolo said. “Everything’s already in place. You guys should be very proud of what you’ve done.”


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