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Home News Tribune Online - 12/22/05
By DEBORAH LYNN BLUMBERG
FRANKLIN — Township Council members broke state law by amending the Planning Board's fair-share plan, according to residents who filed a lawsuit yesterday against the township.
Members of Franklin Residents Against Improper Development, or FRAID, a new nonprofit organization, said council members at a Dec. 13 Township Council meeting had no right to reinstate a proposed Jack Morris development of 864 homes and a Home Depot to the township's fair-share plan. Planning Board members removed the project from the plan two weeks after dozens of residents voiced concern about environmental and quality of life issues. The development was proposed for 123 acres between Bennetts Lane and Veronica Avenue.
Township officials sent the disputed plan to the state earlier this week to meet a Dec. 20 deadline. The fair-share plan outlines how the municipality will satisfy its Council on Affordable Housing, or COAH, requirement over the next 10 years.
"The governing body had no legal authority or jurisdiction to amend the plan," said Stuart Lieberman, the attorney representing FRAID members. "The law is clear that it is a Planning Board function and only a Planning Board function to come up with the fair-share element," he said.
Doris Bennett, a FRAID contributor who lives near the proposed Morris site on Bennetts Lane, called the suit absolutely necessary.
"It's necessary to protect our rights," Bennett said, "because it's clear what the council is trying to do: force their view through and override the Planning Board."
Township Manager Ken Daly was not surprised by the lawsuit, he said, and expects other objectors to the fair-share plan to surface.
"There is going to be a lot of due process in the next few months," Daly said.
But Daly said he stands by the plan submitted to the state, and said township attorney Louis Rainone consulted with COAH as to what to do if Township Council and Planning Board members disagreed.
"The township did not violate state law," Daly said. "What we submitted is a good plan that was in compliance with (the attorney's) discussions with the state."
Planning Board member Joe Danielsen said he was upset with council members' decision to change the plan after the board had worked so hard to prepare it.
"I think its extremely disappointing and inappropriate that the Planning Board's entire year of hard work is thrown out the window," Danielsen said. "The lawsuit has strong merit."
Mayor Brian Levine, who voted against reinstating the Morris project, said he fully expected a lawsuit after the Dec. 13 council meeting. He would have preferred fighting a developer over community members, he said.
"I don't want to battle residents," he said. "They're our number one priority."
Levine said he believes the Planning Board's fair-share plan was a better proposal, and hopes council members will reconsider their position on the Morris project.
"I would hope that council members would be taken aback or hurt that the town is pitted against residents," said Levine, who added he could only speak in general about the complaint because he had yet to see a copy. "If this lawsuit gets all the facts out," he said, "then it will serve its purpose for the people."
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