The Haddon Township mayor attended an informal neighborhood gathering on Sunday to walk residents through an update of the town center redevelopment.
By Matt Skoufalos
For those seeking some fast facts about the status of the Dy-Dee industrial redevelopment site in Haddon Township, here they are.
1. Developers Fieldstone Associates, of Bridgewater, NJ, are still embroiled in a legal battle with the township and the nonprofit Fair Share Housing Center of Cherry Hill over the completion of the original site plan for a mixed-use, transit-oriented development with 201 condominiums, townhouses, and apartments plus 24,000 square-feet of retail space.
2. The only approved developer for the Dy-Dee site is Fieldstone, and the only proposal approved for the site is the original plan, which does not include any affordable housing units. Fair Share Housing is suing for the project to include them, and won an initial determination that some portion of the units should be provided at below-market rates. That judgment is being appealed.
3. All three parties are involved in negotiating a settlement at present, the terms of which could bind both the township and the developer to adding a number of affordable housing units to the project. In the proposed third round of its rules for affordable housing, the New Jersey Council on Affordable Housing (COAH) has determined that Haddon Township has no standing obligation to provide additional units. But those figures aren’t settled law, and won’t be finalized until November.
4. Fieldstone has proposed building an alternative, 227-unit, luxury apartment complex at the site that dramatically changes the layout and scope of the project. It would accommodate 23 affordable housing unit apartments, and would eliminate any retail space. This alternative plan was never approved by the township planning board, and the township is under no obligation to approve it.
5. Haddon Township still owns the 17 properties that span the five acres it spent $8.5 million acquiring throughout the course of the project. Whatever the present value of the land, under the terms of the redevelopment plan, Fieldstone is still obligated to pay that acquisition price when construction begins.
6. According to Haddon Township Mayor Randy Teague, the township has spent $500,000 in legal fees since the litigation surrounding the redevelopment began.
7. Until the final numbers from COAH are issued in November, or until the Fair Share challenges are answered, the township has asked Camden County Superior Court Justice Robert Millenky for a stay in ruling on the case. Teague believes the stay will be granted.
On Sunday afternoon, some 40-plus township residents camped out on lawn chairs in a hedge-lined backyard on Cooper Street to hear those details from the mayor directly.
The informal session was organized by resident Patricia Seidman, who was optimistic that the neighbor-to-neighbor communication represented “a great opportunity” for community-building around a complicated issue.
“People showed up, and it didn’t rain,” she smiled.
Resident Sean McGrath said that he thought the mayor “explained it well,” but questioned why the township doesn’t have a formal public relations effort in swing on its municipal website.
“The best thing to do is put it on the record,” McGrath said.
Even without an official document of the redevelopment happenings, McGrath said, he appreciated the personal setting of a neighborhood gathering to discuss the issue.
“This was fantastic,” he said. “This is not going to happen in Cherry Hill. This is why I love this town.”
Resident Rich Soper echoed McGrath’s sentiments, praising the format while criticizing township leaders for not providing redevelopment updates in a more accessible format.
“We were fed information from social media,” he told Teague. “Nothing was coming from you, the commissioners.”
As much as Soper appreciated the public forum, he said, “It’s going to take a long time to cover the whole town” with in-person meetings.
Still, he called the backyard meet-up as an “excellent” venue for the discussion.
“Having this person-to-person situation that’s very casual, this is very good,” Soper said.
Teague said that he was glad that residents appreciated the forum, but added that “transparency goes both ways.
“You have to be able to hear,” he told residents. “You have to listen to all the facts and then form an opinion.
“We put ideas out there,” Teague said. “We want you to give us feedback.”
The mayor also encouraged residents to attend township committee meetings to share their feelings, and said he didn’t want people to feel “intimidated” speaking to their local leaders.
“The last thing I want to do is be the most hated guy in Haddon Township, because I plan on living here a lot longer,” he said.
After the meeting, Teague said that the township would make an effort to “put all the facts” on its website.
What happens if…
In separate interviews prior to the backyard meet-up, NJ Pen talked with Teague and Fair Share Housing Associate Director Kevin Walsh about the possible outcome of the court case.
If Millenky rules that the township has an affordable housing obligation—anywhere from 10 percent to 20 percent of the units on the site—then that figure would attach to that site plan, Teague said.
In such a scenario, “it would be up to the developer to come up with a plan that would satisfy the court’s decision, and that would have to get approval from the planning board and the board of commissioners as well,” he said.
“The developer could take the position that it’s the town’s obligation, and then we could take the position that it’s the developer’s obligation,” he said. “I’m sure that regardless of what the judge’s decision is, both parties would likely appeal.”
If the judge rules in favor of Fair Share Housing on appeal, then the approvals for the site are eliminated, and the township is free to re-solicit bids for the project, Walsh said.
“If we win in court, the site approvals go away,” he said.
However, any developer that tackles the site will be obligated to designate 20 percent of the project as affordable housing, Walsh said. Fair Share Housing believes this obligation stems from a 2008 amendment to the Fair Housing Act, which states:
“A developer of a project consisting of newly-constructed residential units being financed in whole or in part with State funds…shall be required to reserve at least 20 percent of the residential units constructed for occupancy by low or moderate income households.”
When the township accepted $3.5 million in state aid for environmental cleanup at the Dy-Dee site, Walsh said, that 20-percent clause was triggered.
“The redevelopment plan was adopted in 2002, but the redevelopment plan is zoning,” he said. “That doesn’t mean you don’t have to comply with state law.
“Starting with July 2008, they’d spent little to no money,” he said. Fieldstone was “on notice that if you take state money, you do 20 percent. If we win in court, the site will be required to do 20 percent.”
Moreover, Walsh said, Fair Share Housing believes that the third-round COAH recommendations of zero affordable units won’t hold up in court, because although the township has affordable units in its senior apartment buildings, only 25 percent of that obligation may be met through senior housing, according to state statute.
Walsh also pointed out that the reason the three parties are currently trying to negotiate a settlement is because Fair Share Housing initially won its lawsuit requiring the project to include affordable housing units.
“We’ve won in court, at least initially, and there was a deal that we think is a fair deal,” he said. “We’ve actually given somewhat; we went down to 10 percent.”
“Within reasonable bounds,” there’s a lot of ways to satisfy affordable housing requirements in Haddon Township, Walsh said, “and it’s up to the township and Fieldstone to figure out the details.”
Fieldstone’s contention—that the mathematics of the original project are too expensive to develop in a post-housing-bubble market—is something that Walsh doesn’t dismiss out of hand, either.
“I’ve never been in a case where a developer doesn’t to some extent claim poverty,” he said. “At the same time, there are a lot of developers that have gone belly up.
“It strikes me as credible that this is the only product that will work given the market,” Walsh said. “It also strikes me as reasonable to think that the carrying costs and other things have been substantial.
“At the end of the day, do I want to see housing built there? My job is to point out what the law requires and attempt to enforce it. The others have to figure out what they can do.”
Walsh, who grew up in Pennsauken and attended Camden Catholic High School, said that he believes “a substantial percentage of people in Haddon Township…recognize that housing is expensive…appreciate that lower-income folks are hard-working people, most often, and [would]welcome them into the town.”
For example: in order for a three-person family to qualify for affordable housing, Walsh pointed out that the most they can earn is $58,680 annually, or 80 percent of the median income in the county ($73,350). At the bottom, they must show at least $22,065 in order to qualify for the program.
If a two-bedroom rental in Camden County ranges from about $1,000 to $1,400 per month, the affordable housing rent would be between $500 and $800 a month, or one-third of the monthly income.
“I get contacted by people who are interested in [affordable housing], who read about it in the newspaper, and who have a family member who needs it; who have kids in the school and are trying to stay here,” Walsh said.
“I bump into people who ask about it for a sister who’s a single mother who’s working hard but is not going to be able to afford the rent or buy a house here any time soon.
“These are working families, many of whom are already struggling to remain in Haddon Township, struggling to get to places with good schools and safe streets,” Walsh said.
Teague said that he’s heard mixed reactions from residents as to what they want at the site.
“There’s a number of business owners that are for settling the project because they see a lot of traditional customers coming in,” he said. “It would help them financially. There’s others who would like to see more retail.
“It goes both ways with the residents too,” Teague said. “There’s some that would like to see that ugly site gone. There’s a lot of people who did not like the original plan. There’s a lot of people who would like to see us go start all over. There’s a lot of people signing the petition who want to start over because there wasn’t an RFP; there weren’t a number of options presented. A lot of people think 201 units is too dense.
“Unfortunately, this was all presented back in 2003,” the mayor said. “The realty market has changed significantly since that time. It’s hard for a developer to get financing to build a town home, and it’s hard for an individual to get financing to purchase a town home, especially when they’re first being built and purchased because you don’t have 50% occupancy at that time.
“And we have this issue with affordable housing,” he said. “We, the residents, were promised back in ’03 that there would be no affordable housing obligations.”
Whatever the result of the litigation, Teague said, one thing is certain.
“It’s cost us a lot of money even if we’re successful,” he said.