Saying new affordable-housing obligations would force suburban towns to build beyond their capacity, a coalition of nearly 200 mayors said yesterday they would challenge the regulations in court.

The dispute centers on state rules, unveiled in December, that roughly doubled the affordable-housing requirements first proposed in 2004.

Local leaders say they have neither the space to build the amount of new housing the state demands, nor the money to pay for the associated classrooms, roads and sewers.

"What these regulations will do is turn the state into one large urban area," Bridgewater Mayor Patricia Flannery said during a news conference in the Statehouse yesterday. "What these rules are saying is every piece of land in your town is going to be built to such density, and that's the key word here, density."

The mayors, backed by the New Jersey League of Municipalities, said they have filed a notice of appeal to fight the latest mandate.

The fight has become synonymous with Mount Laurel, named in the Supreme Court case that spawned the state's rules. Mayor John Drinkard said Mount Laurel would join the league's challenge and file its own suit against the latest regulations.

"We're not objecting to the [affordable-housing] obligation, what we're objecting to is the number and the way the state has gone about forcing this number down our throats," Drinkard said.

Mount Laurel could have to provide 1,400 affordable-housing units by 2018, according to the rules.

Affordable-housing advocates said the mayors were trying to avoid a constitutional obligation.

"Their lawsuit is essentially the league standing in the door of the school house," said Kevin Walsh, associate director of the Cherry Hill-based Fair Share Housing Center. Walsh's group was among several that sued over this issue in 2005, forcing the state to beef up affordable-housing requirements to the level that mayors decried yesterday.

"Really, what they're just trying to do is reduce the amount of affordable housing that will be provided," Walsh said.

Department of Community Affairs Commissioner Joseph Doria defended the regulations.

"Affordable housing allows children to live in their communities, allows people who work in the community to then live in their community," Doria said.

He said towns would have to plan for affordable housing, but only provide as much as is required by other local construction. If there is no land to build on and no growth, then towns don't have to worry, Doria said.

But league attorney Edward Buzak said the rules, by forcing towns to change zoning to accommodate projected needs, would create a "self-fulfilling prophecy" that will attract more construction and larger housing obligations.

The league also argues that the latest requirements are based on faulty estimates of land available for new housing. For example, mayors said the projections include land marked for open-space preservation.

The dispute comes against the backdrop of a significant change, expected to be signed into law tomorrow, that would bar towns from shifting their affordable housing obligations to their neighbors.

While the mayors said their appeal was not related to the ban, they said the law would tie their hands while the state imposed even larger obligations.

"We've been handicapped by the elimination of options," said Plainsboro Mayor Peter Cantu.

Supporters of the change, including Assembly Speaker Joseph J. Roberts Jr. (D., Camden), said the deals allow some towns to shirk their affordable-housing obligations.

Evesham Mayor Randy Brown said the new regulations mean his town may have to provide about 600 additional affordable-housing units by 2018, if local growth matches state projections. He questioned where the homes would go.

"We are a built-out town that has a heavy open-space inventory already," Brown said.

Brown was among 169 mayors backing the legal challenge as of yesterday afternoon, with each town contributing $500 toward the cost of the appeal, said league executive director William Dressel. Buzak said briefs would likely be filed this fall.

After 23 years of affordable-housing laws, Buzak said the time had come to revamp the regulations.

"I'm not suggesting they be eliminated. I suggest we start with a clean slate and rethink the process," Buzak said.

Opposing Views

"What these regulations

will do is turn the state into one large urban area. What these rules are saying is every piece of land in your town is going to be built to such density, and that's the key word here, density."

Patricia Flannery,

Bridgewater mayor.

"

Their lawsuit

is essentially the league standing in the door of the school house . . . really what they're just trying to do is reduce the amount of affordable housing that will be provided."

Kevin Walsh,

associate director of the Cherry Hill-based Fair Share Housing Center.

Contact staff writer Jonathan Tamari at 609-989-9016 or jtamari@phillynews.com.