November 25, 2020

Affordable Housing Plan Receives Judgement of Compliance

By Anne Levin

A ruling in New Jersey Superior Court last week completed the final step in the realization of Princeton’s affordable housing plan. On Thursday, November 19, Judge Mary Jacobson issued a Judgement of Compliance and Repose, meaning the municipality has met several conditions in order to fully comply with its affordable housing obligation.

The compliance hearing culminated a process that began in July 2015, after COAH (the Council on Affordable Housing) failed to formulate rules for the third round of municipal housing obligations, which are for the years 1999 to 2025. “This officially brings to conclusion the court’s part of the affordable housing process,” said Mayor Liz Lempert. “It’s a significant milestone.”

Last February, Jacobson approved the town’s settlement agreement with Fair Share Housing Center, ending almost five years of litigation. But certain compliance requirements had to be met. Council members Mia Sacks, David Cohen, and Michelle Pirone Lambros formed a negotiating team that met with property owners, developers, objectors, residents, and others to address various ideas and concerns. They were able to meet several compliance requirements involving zoning changes, agreements, updates, a spending plan, and other actions.

“This is a really complex process,” said Sacks. “We have literally been working around the clock for months now. Everything has to go through the Planning Board and Council. There is so much work in setting up the legal and financial framework. Our submission to the court was more than 2,000 pages.”

“In the end, Princeton was able to formulate, and actually begin to implement, an innovative plan to meet and exceed Princeton’s affordable housing obligation,” reads a press release from the negotiating team. “The plan incorporates a mix of product types dispersed throughout the municipality, and achieves critical planning goals set forth in the municipal master plan. The plan offers a carefully balanced mix of inclusionary developments, 100 percent affordable housing development, senior units, family units, as well fully mixed income projects.”

Jacobson’s judgement “broke new legal ground throughout the state in formulating a new methodology for calculating municipal affordable housing obligations,” the release continues. “The settlement was also unique in the state in that it is the only one that needed to address a municipal consolidation and reconciliation of obligations resultant from two former municipalities. It also presented challenges in that so much of the deemed developable areas in the municipality are owned by institutional entities that do not develop according to market conditions, but rather to institutional needs.”

A key part of the judgement is that it protects the town from what is known as a builder’s remedy lawsuit, which allows a developer to file a suit for the opportunity to construct housing at higher densities than a municipality would otherwise allow.

The first affordable housing project to come on line will be the Thanet Circle properties, which will include 221 apartments, six of which are affordable, and five of which will be special needs units. Additional projects that are planned include new affordable units at Princeton Community Village, Franklin Avenue and Maple Terrace, 375 Terhune Road, and at the site of the former SAVE animal shelter site on Herrontown Road.

“Throughout the entire process, the governing body has tried to keep foremost in mind how we were not only providing affordable housing for the town, but meeting important planning goals as well,” said Lempert. “Location of the affordable housing developments was in accordance with smart growth principles. We picked spots that would be walkable to shopping, jobs, and transit. We also looked at the question of how Princeton can grow in a sustainable way.”

Part of that vision is an expansion of locations beyond the downtown. “Instead of sprawl, you’ll have new hubs emerging,” Lempert said. “So, while downtown will always be a hub, there is a significant amount of the new housing that is in and around the shopping center area and near the Montgomery border.”

According to the negotiating team’s press release, Judge Jacobson was favorably impressed with the efforts taken by Princeton to comply with its obligation.

“The main point is that we proved to the court that we were serious about our plan, and we put all the zoning in place that was needed,” said Lempert. “We showed that we had a finance plan that was feasible, and that we’ve made an effort to address everything that needed to be addressed. There are no really big changes to the plan aside from the fact that we’re looking at a different configuration for the Franklin lot, and we have added the property at 375 Terhune Road. But the plan itself is the same, and it’s now being brought to fruition.”