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Unanimous vote stops developer

Staff Writer

FRANKLIN — The Township Council has unanimously approved an amendment to the township's affordable housing plan that would remove developer Jack Morris' proposed 644-unit housing and retail development from the fair-share plan.

In a special meeting Thursday evening, the council followed the lead of the Planning Board, which unanimously voted Wednesday to remove the development on Bennetts Lane and Veronica Avenue, forcing the vote by the council. An endorsement by the council was required to uphold the Planning Board's ruling.

Mayor Brian D. Levine said he hoped the vote marked the end of the issue, noting that no members of the public or representatives from the developer were in attendance to object.

"If they had something to say, they should have come here and said it," Levine said.

The plan had come under fire by the public over recent months and led to the first recall election in Somerset County history.

The plan would have allowed Morris to build the 644 residential units along with 225,000 square feet of retail space on the 80-plus acre site.

Former deputy mayor Ellen Ritchie was ousted in a September recall election after it was learned she had met privately with Morris. Critics said she did not have the township's best interests at heart but she claimed she only met with Morris to see if he would consider reducing the density of the residential units.

Council member Robert Mettler, winner of the recall election for Ritchie's seat, said it was unreasonable to think that no one would ever develop the site. He said he just hopes whatever is developed is reasonable.

"What was proposed for this tract would have created a great many problems in a lot of ways," Mettler said. "Hopefully whatever is proposed in the future will be much more in keeping with what's . . . environmentally sensitive to the property."

A report by the state Department of Environmental Protection said land on the Morris site suitable for development might actually be as little as 21 acres, not the more than 80 acres as originally thought.

Critics of the plan cited stream and wetlands protection and the presence of endangered species such as the red-shouldered hawk as reason for opposing the plan.

Stuart Lieberman, an attorney representing the grassroots group Franklin Residents Against Improper Development in a lawsuit against the township over the issue, said he was happy with the back-to-back victories with the Planning Board and the Township Council.

"Some people say that you can't fight town hall," he said. "This is a good example that you don't have to fight town hall. You can educate, communicate and enter into dialogue with the municipality and you can get a result that everybody can be happy with."

The move returns the affordable-housing plan back to the original form adopted in 2005. The council had since amended the plan to include the Morris project.