Divided Council Passes Affordable Housing Measure to Align With Mandate

In a charged Franklin Lakes Borough Council meeting, Council members and residents faced off over a property development slated to be the largest in the borough’s history. Central issues included a proposed 495-unit multifamily housing project by and a federal use option that has stirred outcry from some community members. While the project promises to meet the borough’s affordable housing quota, it comes amidst contentious debate over zoning ordinances, taxpayer liability, and environmental and traffic impacts.

Mayor Charles J.X. Kahwaty kicked off the meeting by discussing the proposed terms of the development, emphasizing its alignment with the Mount Laurel doctrine, which mandates the inclusion of affordable housing in new residential developments. The proposed settlement would replace a previous agreement, and notably does not require a warehouse, a payment in lieu of taxes (PILOT), or a declaration of the area as requiring redevelopment. Despite these points, public trust remains a stumbling block for the Council.

Beth McManus, the borough’s affordable housing planner, expounded on how the agreement does not necessitate additional expenses or zoning adjustments, potentially making it attractive from a bureaucratic standpoint. However, several citizens called the Council’s transparency into question, claiming that there was insufficient information about what the federal use for the site would be and accusing the Council of crafting a zoning ordinance tailored to the developer’s needs. One resident remarked, “How can you agree to an option if you don’t know where you’re going with that use?”

Council members defended their decision, stating that federal use would include education, office space, and financial services while explicitly ruling out detention centers, prisons, and warehouses. In rebuttal, citizens argued this amounted to a “giveaway” to the developer, bypassing the need for variances.

Traffic concerns and environmental considerations loomed large in the discussions. Residents around Old Mill Road and Walnut Street are particularly anxious about potential shifts in traffic patterns, citing a nearby school for autistic children. On the environmental front, the question of impact on local groundwater and wells was raised. One resident suggested that aligning the area with the Highlands region, which has stricter development rules, would offer better protection.

Legal nuances also made it to the forefront, especially concerning the borough’s obligation to defend the developer in legal disputes. Members of the planning board questioned the level of control they would have over the use of existing buildings, creating further tension between the Council and the board.

Amidst the back and forth, the Council clarified that the development, if approved, would meet all of the borough’s current affordable housing requirements. Thomas G. Lambrix, a council member, asserted that any approval would still need to meet all public health and welfare standards, pointing out that waivers could be granted for affordable housing except when tied to public health and welfare.

Some members argued that the current deal was a compromise, mitigating the risk of a lawsuit that could result in an even higher number of units being built. In the end, the motion to approve the plan carried, with the Council divided. Following the vote, one council member cited the U.S. Constitution, arguing that giving in to the housing deal would mean sacrificing freedoms and setting a dangerous precedent.

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