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By DEBORAH LYNN BLUMBERG
Gannett New Jersey
FRANKLIN (Somerset) -- In a meeting described as the Planning Board's last say on the town's fair-share housing plan, members scrapped their original proposal and sided with the Township Council, putting a proposed Jack Morris development back in the plan.
Council and board members have disputed the affordable housing plan for months, with the council pushing for the Morris project and board members striking it from their version of the plan.
After more than five hours of resident testimony and board discussion Wednesday night, Planning Board members voted 7-2 to adopt a resolution supporting the council's plan, which includes a Morris development of 644 homes and a Home Depot for land between Bennetts Lane and Veronica Avenue. Planning Board members Mike Orsini and Robert Mettler voted against the project.
"We're in a situation where at least council feels that if we do not adopt this resolution, we'll have a very big hole in our plan," Planning Board Chairman Ted Chase said.
Townships that fail to file complete fair-share plans with the state's Council on Affordable Housing can become vulnerable to developers interested in building in town.
The commercial development offered by the Morris project is crucial, officials at the meeting said, because without its property tax revenue, Franklin couldn't afford to educate the extra children affordable housing will bring into town and residents taxes would increase.
At a council and board subcommittee meeting last week designed to reach a compromise on the fair-share plan, attendees decided not to reduce the number of housing units on Morris' proposal. Some feared Morris might abandon the project if they cut the number of units, said Chase, who was at the meeting. The current Morris proposal calls for no more than 15 housing units per acre.
At Wednesday's meeting, more than 80 concerned attendees, including former Franklin officials and officials and residents from neighboring towns, packed the room to share worries over heightened traffic and environmental damage locals have said the project would create.
"Traffic in the corridor was already bad in 2003," said former council member Harry Weber, who opposes the Morris development.
Shirley Anne Almeida of North Brunswick said area roads are already at gridlock and asked board members to keep the project off the plan. Almeida often sees emergency vehicles stuck in traffic on town roads, she said.
"New Jersey has outgrown itself," she said. "Nobody seems to take into consideration the long lines at gas stations, the long lines at post offices and the long lines at grocery stores. Enough is enough."
The audience erupted in applause.
Arnold Schmidt, chairman of Franklin's Environmental Commission, presented board members with a commission resolution opposing the development and recommended officials rezone the site as a conservation district.
Mayor Francis 'Mac' Womack of North Brunswick said he attended the meeting after receiving a flood of calls and e-mails from concerned constituents bemoaning traffic on Route 27.
The meeting turned heated when Stuart Lieberman, attorney for a citizens' group against the development, questioned whether the plan's consultant, Schoor DePalma, had worked for Morris in the past. The question went unanswered.
Franklin must send a final fair share plan to COAH by Feb. 11 to resolve council and board members' disagreement over whether to include the Morris development. Towns are permitted to submit just one plan to COAH, and that plan must be endorsed by both the council and the board, according to COAH.
At 7 p.m. Wednesday, Township Council members will hold a special fair-share plan meeting. Officials expect the council to endorse the plan. But Mayor Brian Levine said he still opposes the development as is and supports the Planning Board's original proposal.
"Every citizen who came before the council and the Planning Board was against the project," Levine said about the Morris development. "It seems we're saying to the residents of Franklin that Franklin is for sale to the highest bidder. I'm failing to see how this is good."