Tuesday marked "a milestone in [Cherry Hill] Township's
compliance," according to an expert housing consultant, the lone witness to testify before a judge approved settlements ending a 40-year-old affordable housing dispute in the Camden County community.
"It's a complicated case," said Philip Caton, who has served as an affordable housing consultant to more than 45 municipalities, including Cherry Hill. "I didn't think I'd be here for a settlement."
One settlement, approved Tuesday by Superior Court Judge Nan Famular, could bring up to 124 affordable rental units to the township under proposed redevelopment plans for three sites on the west side of Cherry Hill. Under the second settlement, the Fair Share Housing Center can begin construction of 54 affordable units on the Evans-Francis estate on the Short Hills Farm property on the east side of town.
Cherry Hill has been mired in such legal disputes since the 1975 Mount Laurel decision, which prohibited exclusionary zoning in the state and required municipalities to provide a fair amount of housing for low- and moderate-income families. In a March ruling by the state Supreme Court, Superior Court judges were granted oversight of municipalities' affordable housing obligations.
At Tuesday's hour-long fairness hearing in Camden, Famular said she was "pleased" to end the dispute "once and for all" by approving the agreements - one between Cherry Hill and Fair Share Housing Center and the NAACP, and the other between the township and developer Cherry Hill Land Associates.
The township will now proceed with final planning-board approvals for Cherry Hill Land Associates' housing proposals on three sites, but "the hard work is done," said Erin Gill, the township's director of policy and planning.
However, the actual redevelopment will take years, said Bridget Palmer, spokeswoman for Cherry Hill Mayor Chuck Cahn.
"There is a lot that needs to happen, and it needs to be done right," Palmer said. "It could take anywhere from two to five or six years, maybe more."
Fair Share, along with local chapters of the NAACP, had sued to force creation of affordable housing in the township.
Kevin Walsh, executive director of the Fair Share Housing Center, said he was satisfied with the result of Tuesday's settlement and is looking forward to having affordable homes built.
"It opens suburban environments to low-income families, mainly minorities that have been excluded," said Colandus "Kelly" Francis, president of the Camden County branch of the NAACP.
According to the settlement with Fair Share Housing, Cherry Hill agreed to designate more than 1,000 affordable housing units - it has prior credit for 187 units, not including the settlements' proposed plans - for the period between 1999 and 2026. The township does not have to physically construct 1,000 residences, Palmer said, but must set aside a reasonable number of units designated for such housing in future projects. That goal was included in the town's 2014 housing element plan.
"The math isn't intended to add up, not now," Walsh said.
"But in the future, it will," he said, once the township's vacant-land adjustment is put in place to account for the difficult nature of construction in a developed community.
In turn, the settlement will protect Cherry Hill against lawsuits alleging it has not met past affordable housing goals.
According to the second settlement, Cherry Hill Land Associates, which owns Woodcrest Country Club, will be able to work on three possible redevelopment sites: an eight-acre plot where America's Best Value Inn and the former Living Faith Christian Academy are located between Route 70 and Cooper River Park; a 17-acre plot between Hampton Road and Cuthbert Boulevard; and the area surrounding the Route 70 complex housing Subaru of America, which is planning to move to Camden.
The township has already determined that the Hampton Road property and the Route 70 site near the hotel to be areas in need of redevelopment.
"The planning board is crafting a redevelopment plan that will identify the most appropriate use for the two sites," Palmer said. "That process - developing the redevelopment plans – will take as long as is necessary to complete a very thorough and thoughtful review of each site and determine what is truly the highest and best use for each."
As for the Subaru site, no redevelopment or zoning changes will occur until the company moves out of the building, Palmer said. The township does not have a firm timeline for that move, but it is estimated that it will take between 18 months and two years.
While most of the proposed housing would be market-rate, the Cherry Hill Land developments could add between 90 and 124 affordable rental units.
Richard Hoff, an attorney who represented Cherry Hill Land Associates, would not comment on Tuesday's settlement approval.