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Middle OKs attorney for affordable housing talks

CAPE MAY COURT HOUSE — Middle Township has hired an attorney to negotiate a settlement on its affordable housing obligation.

Township Committee this month unanimously approved a renewed contract with attorney Jeffrey R. Surenian to serve as the township’s special counsel for affordable housing for 2019.

According to Mayor Tim Donohue, Surenian will begin talks with the Fair Share Housing Center, an advocacy group that has filled some of the gap left since New Jersey shifted the oversight of affordable housing from COAH, or the Council on Affordable Housing, to the courts.

“It is a way to seek relief from builder’s remedy lawsuits by showing good faith and reaching an agreement with the Fair Shar Housing Center,” Dononue said in a Monday, Feb. 18, interview. “I think we’re probably a little late to the game. The issue has kind of been ignored over the last few years.”

Township Committee has not entirely ignored affordable housing. The issue was the sole topic at a workshop meeting April 16. And the agreement with Surenian is a continuation of a $12,000 deal approved in 2014, according to the resolution. The resolution states there is about $3,400 left on that agreement for Surenian to handle “Mount Laurel Matters.”

Back in 1975, the state Supreme Court found that towns have an obligation to provide opportunities for affordable housing, in a ruling known as the Mount Laurel decision. Towns that fail to meet those obligation may face legal action, not from the state but from developers who may challenge local zoning ordinances on the grounds that the local government has failed to meet its affordable housing obligations. These so-called builder’s remedy suits can mean higher density development for projects that promise to include an affordable housing element.

Donohue said the township will end up spending money for attorneys “which never tastes good to me,” but could end up with better control over its zoning rules. If the township has an accepted affordable housing plan in place, one of the benefits is immunity to builder’s remedy lawsuits.

But part of the current process of getting a plan accepted is a negotiation with the Fair Share Housing Center. In other Cape May County municipalities, negotiated settlements with the advocacy group have been endorsed by the courts.

Donohue suggested some municipalities have been reluctant to deal with the Fair Share Housing Center.

“They seem to be fairly reasonable, so it’s a discussion worth having,” he said. “We want to try to drive this bus before somebody tries forcing us to do something we don’t want to do.”

Anthony Campisi, a communications consultant with the Fair Share Housing Center, said the process with Middle Township had just begun. He said he could not comment on an ongoing negotiation.

“What I can say is that we have been able to reach settlements with every other town that has participated in the fair housing process in Cape May County, and we hope to be able to also reach a settlement in Middle Township that addresses our state's affordable housing crisis,” Campisi said.

According to Donohue, Middle Township has shown good faith on affordable housing and is one municipality that has seen development of affordable housing units, with a combined total of 160 units in two projects in Rio Grande and on Railroad Avenue in Cape May Court House. Built by Conifer Realty, those projects included funding from federal recovery money from Hurricane Sandy and funds from Middle Township’s Affordable Housing Trust, along with federal tax credits.

The conversation with Fair Share Housing has just begun, Donohue said. He could not guess how long it may take to reach a settlement.

“It depends on how reasonable people want to be,” he said. “At least we’re heading down the path toward some kind of resolution.”

For years, COAH set a target for the number of units of affordable housing for each town. With Middle Township’s relatively large areas of open space, especially compared to neighboring barrier island communities, Donohue said, he usually saw those obligation numbers for his community as excessive.

Over more than 40 years, municipalities have faced a dizzying series of rules and changing obligations on affordable housing. In 1975, the state Supreme Court’s Mount Laurel decision found that towns have a constitutional obligation to provide opportunities for affordable housing. In 1985, the state passed the Fair Housing Act, creating the Council on Affordable Housing. After numerous challenges and court cases, including an unsuccessful attempt by former Gov. Chris Christie to scrap COAH entirely, the courts took over the administration of the fair share housing rules.

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