Let’s Do the Right Thing

The words “affordable housing” have almost disappeared from the discussions about plans for residential development in Wayne. Understandable. We cannot ignore issues like overdevelopment and an aging infrastructure, but we should not lose sight of our township’s constitutional AND moral obligation. Most of us have focused more on reducing Wayne’s obligation rather than figuring out how we can deliver our fair share. The only public official to articulate a sense of obligation has been the lone Democrat on the council, Fran Ritter. Whether we agree with her proposed solutions or not, we owe her a debt of gratitude for regularly reminding us of our responsibility.

Unfortunately, it is almost impossible for anyone to propose alternative ways to meet our obligation because the township cites “attorney-client privilege” and refuses to disclose analyses of properties suitable for redevelopment or vacant land. The long overdue New Master Plan should include this information but has been put on hold until the administration has satisfied the court – not likely before the 2025 end of round 3. Our 1994 Master Plan and its re-examination reports may be legal, but fail to address the groundbreaking business, environmental, and technology changes that have taken place.

When they see that we are not planning for the future, will the best developers or nonprofits think of Wayne as a desirable development partner? Our leaders do not want development, like many of us; but the result is that we end up dealing with developers like Avalon Bay who has had two catastrophic fires at its apartment complexes. We need a proactive rather than reactive approach because development and redevelopment are unavoidable. Foot dragging will not minimize development or strengthen our negotiation position. None of the approved concept plans have more than 1 in 5 affordable units, a minimum that the court usually insists upon. We are maximizing development rather than minimizing it – although delays create the minimum development illusion, especially because Wayne did not approve any plans from the 1999 beginning of round 3 until December of 2019.

By 1999 the NJ Supreme Court had made it clear that the Fair Housing Act was here to stay. Moreover, the origin of the act was a 1975 NJ Supreme Court Mt. Laurel decision that prevented this town from using rezoning to force out an entire poor community of black residents. We would do well to remember that this egregious situation and others forced the courts to get involved. Some communities were doubling the minimum lot size. Others were creating revitalization zones that pushed affordable homes elsewhere.

Resistance to equitable zoning practices did not stop back then. When Governor Christie took office in 2010, he tried to sabotage the law, despite its success up to 1999. Sadly, the NJ Supreme Court had to intervene two more times, in 2013 and 2015. The 2015 decision put the administration of the Fair Housing Act in the hands of the Superior Court because Christie’s administration refused to issue constitutionally compliant guidelines to municipalities despite its 2013 order to do so.

We should be embarrassed by resistance to our constitution and the attitudes toward moderate and low income households that it implies. We should expand or focus to make contributing our fair share a priority – remembering that half of affordable units will go to moderate income households like those of many of our children. Shouldn’t many who work in our nursing homes, grocery stores, coffee shops, delis, restaurants, and retail stores be able to afford homes in Wayne? A proactive approach would plan how to deliver our fair share AND minimize overdevelopment. Remember, the law is here to stay; and round 4 begins in 2025.

Many, or perhaps most of us, have resisted development, encouraging our leaders to do the same. We love our town the way it is. But we must switch gears and face reality. We need to let our administration know that we are ready to do this. We need to insist that they make public analyses of vacant land, commercial locations in need of redevelopment, and sites suitable for mixed use zoning. We must push our government towards marketing Wayne to attract the best developers. The character of our township will be a competitive advantage once our leaders begin looking for partners rather than postponing the inevitable. Passive resistance does not strengthen our negotiating position. In fact, the opposite is true because the courts will see that we are reluctant to comply with our constitutional obligation. An easy first step is for the Planning Department to organize public hearings as part of developing a new Master Plan RFP.

Wayne has chosen to wait until all is done to create the legally required Housing Element and Fair Share Plan (which becomes part of the Master Plan.) The usual practice is to publish a plan and submit to the court for approval of the final housing unit obligation numbers, with the understanding that lists of projects will inevitably evolve. Technically, the Superior Court could revoke our immunity for this failure, but it is reluctant to involve itself more than absolutely necessary. Common sense says that Wayne’s present approach makes us unattractive to many, if not most, developers. The administration is gambling that a shortfall of developers will convince the court that it has done everything possible to meets the round 2271 obligation for round 3 so the obligation should be reduced. What else can we do? History tells us that the court will carry over part of the obligation to round 4 and become even more likely to revoke our immunity to builders’ remedy lawsuits the next time negotiations get tough.

Our political leaders will not change unless they believe we have changed – that we have abandoned our NIMBY (Not in My Back Yard) attitudes and recognized the reality that planning and partnerships are the best way to preserve Wayne’s character. This fall’s local election may present an opportunity to do that. Look for candidates who want to do the right thing – who see the need for affordable housing, who favor planning and a new Master Plan, and who want proactive relationships with developers. These relationships will protect Wayne’s character and the desirable standards we have so carefully created for maximum lot coverage, building height, and minimum setbacks from property borders. Developing to standards like these mean property appreciation for both developers and residents. Living up to our constitution obligations is not only the right thing to do, but also the best thing for Wayne’s overall economic development.

John Pennington

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