Regional battle Battle over affordable housing and other zoning issues

Secaucus and the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission are at a loggerhead over the placement of affordable housing for the Meadowlands District.

Pressed by two lawsuits filed by affordable housing activists groups last year, NJMC has been seeking to meet state requirements for providing affordable housing units for portions of the 14 municipalities it regulates in Hudson and Bergen Counties.

Secaucus Mayor Dennis Elwell fears that because Secaucus has available land, the courts or the NJMC may construct additional housing here, which he says is unwanted.

The construction of Xanadu Mall in East Rutherford sparked the conflict when affordable housing groups filed two suits last year, claiming the NJMC and the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority (which oversees Xanadu) were failing to meet the state’s affordable housing requirements for new construction.

In some ways, this is a decades-old conflict, since the NJMC was established by an act of the New Jersey State Legislature in 1969, as a result of disputes among municipalities in the Hackensack Estuary. Despite the growing need for housing, the land-rich municipalities were zoned for warehouses and retail, seeking to avoid financial impact from new schools, police, and fire services that would be required by residential development.

NJMC was charged with formulating a plan that would accommodate the needs of the whole area, and then divide the burden – as well as the benefits – of new development among the 14 towns.

NJMC set up a complicated tax-sharing pool. Towns allowed to develop more lucrative projects such as retail malls and luxury housing would pay a portion of the tax revenues into the pool, from which other towns facing environmental or other restrictions would draw.

Historically, Secaucus – which was allowed to develop more property – has paid the most into the tax sharing pool, while Kearny, saddled with a significant number of trash fills, has benefited most.

Despite minor disputes over the decades, the process worked.

Then came Xanadu and affordable housing.

Because of payments in lieu of taxes from Xanadu, East Rutherford appears to receive revenues it is not required to submit to the tax-sharing pool. Yet Secaucus and the other municipalities such as North Bergen and a portion of Jersey City could be unfairly saddled with the project’s affordable housing requirements.

Xanadu is going to generate thousands of jobs and require possibly hundreds of affordable housing units to be constructed, and it may force the state to rethink the tax-sharing pool.

Elwell believes the financing of the NJMC should resemble more other similar commissions, drawing down from a pool of money regulated by the state.

The affordable housing requirement is a relatively new concept brought about by court action in the 1970s and 1980s that require new development to pay for or construct units that people living in the area can afford to buy. These rules keep changing as advocates press the state’s Council on Affordable Housing for more stringent requirements. For Secaucus, the constantly changing rules have brought construction of affordable housing to a halt.

“We developed plans for affordable housing in Secaucus,” Elwell said. “But we had to put them on hold until the state determines what the new rules are.”

Secaucus, however, is at risk of losing control of its own destiny.

Elwell fears that the NJMC will look at Secaucus as a viable place to locate the most or all of the district’s obligation. Yet even more terrifying to Elwell is a possible court take over of the affordable housing requirements, such as what happened in Carlstadt.

To avoid this, Elwell is seeking to come up with a redevelopment plan for vacant land in Secaucus to show the property already has a designated use.

Got underway, two lawsuits

The fight over affordable housing for Xanadu took a significant legal turn last May.

NJMC and the Sport Exposition Authority had argued in the courts that they were immune from the affordable housing regulations.

Last May, however, the courts struck down these exemptions, saying Xanadu did have an obligation. The courts also noted that this obligation fell on the shoulders of each municipality.

But NJMC had already started to develop an affordable housing plan of its own, adjusting this to meet the guidelines imposed by the May Appellate Court ruling, which said NJMC has “a constitutional responsibly to plan and zone affordable housing.”

Chris Gale, spokesperson for the NJMC, said the plan does not single out Secaucus.

“What we’re trying to do is avoid a court takeover of the affordable housing obligation in the Meadowlands by developing a plan that meets all the court’s criteria,” Gale said. “This is purely a protective measure.”

Elwell, however, said he has concerns about how the plan is being implemented and who will make the ultimate choices on where affordable housing its located.

“I don’t want the staff of the Meadowlands Commission to make the final choices,” he said. “They were not elected by the people. They should not decide.”

Stepping into the middle of the dispute is former Bayonne Mayor Joseph Doria, who became chairman of the NJMC early last month, and must oversee the process.

Doria brings to the table experience as a mayor, and recently oversaw the upgrade of the affordable housing plan in Bayonne. Since the late 1990s, Doria has also overseen projects that combined government and civic groups to develop affordable housing in Bayonne.

Elwell said he spoke briefly to Doria and hopes to present his case to Doria more fully in the future.

Elwell said he is hoping for more municipal input into the selection process, and also a review of how the NJMC is funded, noting that the pilot to Xanadu unfairly skews the existing tax sharing formula.

Meanwhile, the New Jersey Supreme Court – which first ruled on providing affordable housing in 1975 – has given the Council on Affordable Housing until Dec. 31 to come up with a final formula that municipalities must meet.

Doria, as commissioner of the State Department of Community Affairs, is seeking an extension until March 31 in order to meet with all of the interested groups to get a better picture of what the final plan should look like.


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