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Evesham and Delran sued over affordable housing

An advocacy group is asking Burlington County Superior Court to block construction of three residential developments in Evesham and Delran, alleging that the townships are not including enough affordable housing.

An advocacy group has asked Superior Court in Burlington County to block construction of three residential development projects in Evesham and Delran,  alleging that the townships are not meeting their mandatory affordable housing requirements.

The two lawsuits are among four that the Cherry Hill-based Fair Share Housing Center has filed recently in New Jersey. It is seeking to compel the municipalities it views as noncompliant to zone for the  low- and middle-income housing opportunities it believes they should be allowing.

Fair Share has special legal status that allows it to negotiate or litigate with municipalities to meet their court-mandated affordable housing requirements.

"Evesham and Delran are trying to avoid their 'Mount Laurel' obligations by approving large-scale developments with very little or no affordable housing," Fair Share's spokesman, Anthony Campisi, said last week. "At the same time, they're arguing they can't possibly meet their Mount Laurel obligations because there simply isn't enough land suitable for development.

"We're taking them at their word." said Campisi, "and asking the judge to prohibit their planning boards from approving any development that doesn't address their unmet fair housing need."

The other municipalities named in similar Fair Share lawsuits are Edgewater in Bergen County and Parsippany in Morris County. Campisi said that more than 90 municipalities have settled their "Mount Laurel" housing plans, committing to zoning for 30,000 affordable units during the next nine years.  The term Mount Laurel derives from a series of New Jersey Supreme Court decisions named after Mount Laurel Township.

Delran declined comment last week on its lawsuit, saying it was township policy not to discuss litigation.

But Evesham's director and deputy director of community development sat down last week to defend what they said was the township's commitment to meeting its affordable housing obligation.  With a population of 42,000, it is Burlington County's largest municipality.

"We completely disagree" with Fair Share's lawsuit, said Nancy Jamanow, the township's development director. "We've complied with everything the courts have asked for," she said, but agreed that the township still had much to do to meet its obligations for the latest compliance round, which ends in 2025.

Fair Share is asking the court to block the start of construction of a 62-unit townhouse development on 28.5 acres on North Elmwood Road. It says Evesham's planning board allowed Timber Ridge Development LLC to set aside only six affordable units. Fair Share asserts that a 20 percent set-aside for affordable housing is the statewide standard for such projects.

In the case of Delran, Fair Share says in its complaint that that township last year approved a redevelopment plan that includes two new residential development projects for seniors  — one of 82 units, the other 108 — with "zero" affordable units among the 190.  It also notes that the township contends in its fair housing plan that "it is unable to realistically produce more than 44 affordable units" in the current compliance round.

Fair Share argues that Delran, with a population of nearly 17,000, has an obligation to zone for at least 827 units during the next nine years. Its suit asks the court to vacate the redevelopment plan, block the start of construction, and order the township to set aside 20 percent of the units for low- and middle-income households.

Evesham's planners said they disagree with many of the assertions in Fair Share's suit.

A fundamental disagreement, they say, is how many affordable housing units Evesham is obliged by law to zone for. Whereas Fair Share has calculated about 1,600 units, a court-appointed master last year put the number at 439, said Leah Furey Bruder, the deputy.

The township's obligation will most likely be larger than 439,  she said,  "but we don't know what our numbers are." Early this month the Supreme Court declared that municipalities must zone for the units not created during a 16-year "gap period" when the state could not devise an adequate formula for calculating those obligations.

Jamanow said, however, that throughout the "gap" Evesham had required many developers to set aside 10 percent of their units for affordable housing. "And that was when a lot of other towns were doing nothing," she said.

She and Bruder said there is no legal mandate requiring towns to set aside 20 percent of every residential development for affordable housing.

"Affordable housing is one of the many factors we consider in land-use planning,"  Bruder said. "It's not the only one. We also want to consider traffic, neighborhood character, utilities, environment, public transportation. In some areas, high density is not appropriate."

But Campisi  said he believes the township's position will not hold up in court. "They have not been meeting their constitutional requirement to the people of the state who are entitled to access to good schools and safe, affordable housing," he said. "We've sued them to bring them into the judicial process."