June 25, 2014

Council Discusses COAH Rules; Makes “Flood House” Decision

New regulations proposed by the state Council on Affordable Housing (COAH) dictating that Princeton has “zero obligation” to build more affordable units have caused concern that developers will be able to challenge the town’s current municipal ordinance requiring them to set aside a portion of affordable units in housing projects.

Princeton Council was given a presentation on the proposed rules at its meeting Monday night. In another matter, the governing body heard from neighbors and the owners of a rental home at 59 Meadowbrook Drive known as the “flood house” before voting 5-1 for an ordinance to demolish the flood-prone property and create a small pocket park on the site.

COAH’s proposed, third-round rules were published on June 2. In her presentation to Council, Princeton’s COAH adviser Shirley Bishop stressed repeatedly that the regulations are not set in stone. The non-profit Fair Share Housing Center has filed a lawsuit with the New Jersey Supreme Court, questioning the methods that were used to arrive at the figures in the proposed rules. The New Jersey Builders Association may also file a suit soon, Ms. Bishop said.

Princeton’s zero building obligation is based not on need, but on the fact that the town does not have much space to build more units. The municipality has until August 1 to register its own comments, and Ms. Bishop recommended that the town file an OPRA (Open Public Records Act) request to determine how the data was compiled. The state will adopt the regulations on November 17 unless ruled not to do so by the state Supreme Court.

Princeton’s ordinance currently requires developers to set aside 20 percent of the units in large, multi-family developments as affordable. “One of my main concerns about this is that we do have a strong commitment here that is above and beyond the state requirement,” Mayor Liz Lempert said at a press conference earlier in the day. “I don’t want [new rules] to stand in our way.” At the meeting, Ms. Lempert said, “I want to make sure that if the state comes back and says we don’t have any obligation, that it is not going to impede our ability to keep that law on the books.”

Councilwoman Jo Butler called the zero obligation figure “really shocking,” and suggested Council form a subcommittee to help compile a response. Councilman Patrick Simon commented, “The rules appear to be to protect developers even more aggressively than they already did.” Ms. Lempert suggested asking the town’s affordable housing board for help. “We want to make sure we can continue to do what we feel we need to do for our town,” she said.

The proposed COAH rules are based on data from the U.S. Census. COAH arrived at the figures by considering the number of persons per room in units built before 1960; plumbing facilities such as lack of a sink, toilet, tub, or shower; and kitchen facilities such as the lack of a sink with piped water, a stove, or refrigerator. A unit has to have at least one of those deficiencies to be considered eligible, and has to be occupied by a low/moderate income household.

Princeton would be obligated to rehabilitate 151 affordable units under the proposed regulations. On-site surveys were not conducted to come up with the figure of 151 deficient units, Ms. Bishop said, encouraging Council to perform an exterior survey if it believes the 151 figure is too high.

There are currently more than 2,000 people on the waiting list for affordable rental housing in Princeton, Ms. Bishop said.

 “Flood House”

The ordinance approved by Council to demolish the house at 59 Meadowbrook Drive was voted on after a public hearing, where there were comments from several neighbors of the property and strong statements from members of Council, particularly Lance Liverman. “This is a dangerous, dangerous property,” Mr. Liverman said. “If we don’t do this now, the grant we’re supposed to be receiving will be thrown away. I just don’t see how this isn’t a win-win situation.”

Under the terms of a grant from the New Jersey Office of Emergency Management (FEMA), the town will use $30,000 of open space trust funds to pay for the demolition and rehabilitation. The purchase price of the property is $625,000, and the balance is to be paid for by FEMA. There were concerns aired about the purchase price, which some believe is too high. The assessed value of the land and the house was $577,300 as of last year.

“I do have some hesitancy,” said Councilwoman Jenny Crumiller. “I would like to discuss this one more time behind closed doors.” But Bob Kiser, the town’s engineer, said that under the FEMA grant, the site must be restored by September 12, which doesn’t allow time for more discussion.

Flooding has been a longstanding problem at the site, Mr. Kiser told Council. The property, in a development built before federal flood maps were implemented, is owned by Moshe and Nira Lavid. Built in 1960, it is next to a tributary that flows into Harry’s Brook and is prone to major flooding and stormwater problems. Neighborhood residents have grown used to seeing occupants’ belongings drying out on the lawn after major storms through the years; hence the name “flood house.”

Residents first asked the former Township Committee for help in 2002. Denied FEMA funding in 2007, the former Township met with former Representative Rush Holt in 2010 and finally succeeded in getting FEMA funds in 2012, Mr. Kiser said.

Several members of the public urged Council to vote for the ordinance to tear down the house. “I’d be glad to pay my share of the $30,000 Princeton has to pay,” said neighbor Jeff Orleans. “The price may be too high altogether, but the price to us in Princeton is an absolute bargain.” Neighbor Matt Wasserman, who chairs the Princeton Environmental Coalition, pointed out that the $30,000 would come out of Green Acres funds, which are meant for open space. “That’s the cheapest you’ll ever spend for open space in this town,” he said.

Local resident Henry Singer said the price is too high and suggested condemning the property. Resident Dale Meade agreed, adding that this is not the only property in Princeton to be plagued by flooding issues. “The beneficiary of this action will be the landlord,” he said. “Let’s assess what the true market value will be.” But municipal attorney Trishka Cecil said the price of pursuing that strategy would be time-consuming and costly, and possibly end up greater than the purchase price.

Property owner Nira Lavid said she and her husband had no idea that the property was so vulnerable to flooding when they purchased it and they experienced no problems for the first seven years. She added that tenants were notified of the situation in their leases and required to have flood insurance.

Councilman Simon was the only member to vote against the ordinance. Mayor Lempert recused herself from the discussion since she lives across the street from the property.