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Friday, December 21, 2007

Franklin housing project is buried

By SEUNG MIN KIM
Star-Ledger Staff

644-unit proposal out of 'affordable' plan

A proposed housing development in Franklin that had come under intense criticism from township residents is now off the table.

During a special meeting last night, the township council unanimously voted to strike the proposal from Franklin's affordable housing plan, essentially killing the 644-unit project that had been planned on an 80-acre tract at Bennetts Lane and Veronica Avenue.

The proposal rankled township residents, who cited the development's potential impact on the environment, property tax rates and traffic in Somerset County's most heavily populated town.

"I'm thrilled that, finally, we're climbing up from under the damage that had been done," said Phil Kramer, director of Taxpayers United in Franklin, a local watch dog group. "This has taken a tre mendous effort by a lot of people, and we have turned around something that was very harmful to the town."

Planning officials said the exist ing zoning of the site, located in the eastern section of town near Route 27, won't allow for such dense development. Also planned was more than 225,000 square feet of retail, including a Home Depot store.

A bipartisan group of Franklin activists began a campaign to recall former Deputy Mayor Ellen Ritchie, accusing her of close ties with developer Jack Morris that helped land the large-scale development on the township's fair- share housing plan.

Residents fired more political ammunition at Ritchie after she reportedly threatened planning board member Michael Orsini, telling him his political career would be ruined if he voted against the Morris development.

Voters in Franklin's 3rd Ward booted Ritchie from office in September by a landslide margin, re placing the Democratic councilwoman with Republican Robert Mettler, a former mayor.

Last night's vote comes one day after the planning board unanimously agreed to remove the project from the affordable housing plan.

Existing guidelines from the state Council on Affordable Hous ing require that one of every eight market-rate units be affordable housing for low- and middle-in come residents, although the agency earlier this week released a new proposal that would change that guideline to one in every five.

The vote returns Franklin's fair- share plan to what it was in 2005, when the Morris development was not included. Representatives of the Piscataway developer did not attend last night's meeting, or Wednesday's planning board meet ing.

"That says to me that either they're backing off or they think they're so politically well-connected that they'll get their project through anyway," Mayor Brian Levine said. "But they'll find a different council than they did a few years ago. This one will stand more on what is right."

Seung Min Kim may be reached at skim@starledger.com or (908) 429-9925.