In March 2015, a long proposed but never built housing development started to meander its way closer to reality in Hampton, New Jersey. It would generate 72 affordable housing units out of 333 total units. The proposed site is along the banks of the Musconetcong River on 77 acres of land. It is currently a mix of farm fields, forest, and wetlands. It contains a spring-fed pond and an intermittent stream on site.
The proposal comes from a 1981 affordable housing lawsuit. At the time, Hampton, like many small New Jersey towns, had not yet proposed an affordable housing zone as required by a collection of court cases referred to as “Mt. Laurel doctrine.” Affordable housing is important in a high-cost state like New Jersey, and the approach of Mt. Laurel doctrine was to allow the private developers to sue out of compliance towns in order to facilitate high-density development that subsidized the creation of a number of affordable housing units. Typically, developers favored the lower-priced farmland for acquisitions and subdivision rather than acquiring a number of lots within a town center. Unlike the regular development process, where the Planning Board retains control, a Mt. Laurel process goes through the State’s Superior Court.
For six days last year, about 30-60 residents of Hampton and neighboring Bethlehem Township participated in the Court’s hearings. The Public was able to ask questions of the developer’s expert witnesses and was able to bring their own expert witnesses. At the heart of last year’s court was shifting the proposed development from farm lot in the Highlands Preservation Zone, where subdivision is strictly limited, to a Highlands Planning Zone lot, where subdivision can be allowed. Ironically, this move across Valley Road placed the development site next to the Musconetcong River and impacts an unnamed tributary to the river.
Concern about the river, including and unnamed intermittent stream on site, is what catalyzed an informal meetings and an information sharing network. One of the projects we conducted was hiring Amy Greene Environmental Consultants Inc. to assess maps of the site for regulated water features. This showed a regulated tributary, per the then NJ Department of Environmental Protection regulations. Because we had Amy testify as an expert, we were able to get parts of her report entered into evidence during the court hearings.
Hampton is generally one of the most affordable towns in Hunterdon county. It has a mix of single-family, duplex, apartment homes, garden apartments, condos, and trailer homes. However, because most of this housing wast built prior to 1980, it does not count as affordable housing for Mt. Laurel requirements. The borough also has some lots in need of redevelopment in the town center and along state highway 31. Additionally, a number of houses are in foreclosure. Alternatives to the proposed development would require greater local government involvement to entice redevelopment and direct involvement in affordable housing provision.
Today, we are just at the start of the permitting process for the development. as part of a March 30, 2016 court settlement. Hampton had to revise its zoning ordinance and affordable housing plan. Now the developer needs to apply to the NJ Department of Environmental Protection for several permits, including for a onsite sewage groundwater discharge facility. Also, the project will need to go through the Planning Board review process. It needs to be developed within the next 10 years in order for Hampton to meet its affordable housing obligations. Along the way, Hampton will need to upgrade its drinking water infrastructure, including a back-up well, which the developer has offered to contribute payment.
We are in for a long haul and are committed that the land use laws and regulations are followed on the proposed site. New construction is not always necessary, a point made by the Fair Share Housing Center, an affordable housing advocate, at one of the court hearings. We hope that Hampton develops a “Plan B” to meet affordable housing requirements in case the site is too environmentally constrained to be developed to meet any or all affordable housing needs.