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Sunday, February 12, 2006

Affordable housing a big-bucks affair Franklin Twp. plan generates an outcry

BY JOE TYRRELL
Star-Ledger Staff

Franklin Twp. plan generates an outcry

Franklin Township's affordable housing plan is like fashion: One day you are in, and the next day you are out.

Just like on "Fashion Avenue," the Midtown New York stretch of Seventh Avenue, winning approval can be a big-bucks affair.

A majority of the all-Democratic council Wednesday night voted to send a plan they crafted to the state Council on Affordable Housing. The 5-1 vote came over the objections of Mayor Brian Levine, a Republican, and without the participation of council members Brian Regan, James Vassanella and Teresa Danile.

The outcome reflected the council majority's decision to include major developers. It sparked an outcry from some residents because the builders also happen to be major Democratic contributors.

In fashioning the plan, the council overrode the usual local planning board process. First, the council intervened to approve Summerfields at Franklin, 900 units of age-restricted housing near Zarepath on the township's western edge.

Then, before the board received the housing plan, the council dropped two properties, one off Lakeside Avenue, the other at Leona Street.

Finally, the council assured developer Jack Morris' project off Bennetts Lane and Veronica Avenue a vital place in the plan. It will include a Home Depot and other stores.

Summerfields is being developed by a partnership between Anatol Hiller, builder of the even larger Canal Walk senior development just to the south, and members of the Wilf family, also among New Jersey's leading developers.

In 2002-04, Hiller individually gave $35,000 to New Jersey Democrats, as well as corporate contributions. The Wilfs have given the Middlesex County party $24,000 since 1998.

Summerfields is the largest development in the plan, but has the least impact. Even with a projected 100 affordable units, it will cover only the additional need generated by its own 800 market-priced units.

The fast track for Bennetts/Veronica made up for the council's failed 2004 effort to declare the neighborhood "blighted," which would have allowed Morris to redevelop it then with a Home Depot.

According to Levine, at a private Jan. 27 meeting among council and board representatives and staffers, one point made was "there wouldn't be any homes without the Home Depot."

In recent years, Morris and his companies have contributed at least $275,000 to the Middlesex County Democratic organization. In October 2003, he and his frequent partner, developer Joseph Marino of Clifton, branched out, giving $64,500 to the Somerset County Democratic organization.

Although the figures are subject to change, the latest projections are Morris will build 664 total units, with 132 credited toward the township's affordable housing obligation.

While the numbers have varied, Township Manager Ken Daly estimated Franklin's affordable housing obligation at 617 units. The most recent figures suggest the plan would result in more than 2,000 total homes, plus the stores.

According to consultant David Roberts of Schoor DePalma, the Home Depot is a major attraction, not just of Morris' proposal but of the entire plan. His projections of tax revenue from the stores, based on property assessments, indicate they would "balance out the costs of the housing," whose residents require municipal services.

Roberts conceded the balance could be upset if commercial enterprises instead are taxed based on revenues. But he and council members also offered assurances the plan meets Franklin's legal and moral obligations.

"I get very offended when I hear people saying we're creating a 'slum,' or even a 'ghetto,' a word I haven't heard in years," said Councilwoman Wandra Ashley Williams. "We don't have those places in Franklin and we're not going to."

"They're people like you and me," said Councilwoman Ellen Ritchie. "To qualify as moderate-income here, a family of four can earn almost $75,000."

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the median income for four-person families in New Jersey in 2004 was $73,973.