“Affordable” Housing Sprawl: Part 1

You’ve seen them in the middle of farmland, on Main Streets in the state’s quaintest towns, and on the shores and banks of the most beautiful lakes, rivers and streams — all across New Jersey: massive, ugly, poorly conceived ultra-high-density, 3, 4 and 5-story housing developments that just don’t fit.

SCORE: Affordable housing – 1, Sprawl – 4

affordable housing sprawlThese are predominantly high-priced market units — up to 80 percent or more of them — that yield windfall profits for their builders. Most of them are brought to you by courts that call them a “builder’s bonus” because they include a tiny number of court-mandated “affordable housing” units — a 4:1 ratio. Most of these developments pay no normal property taxes.

New Jersey needs more affordable housing — but not in this form, or at the indefensible costs they exact on taxpayers, or at the risks they pose to water quality and our natural resources, or with little regard to sound planning.

“Builders may not be able to build just where they want — our parks, farms, and conservation areas are not a land bank for housing speculators…” – N.J. Supreme Court, 1983
For years, “housing consultants,” “housing advocates” and judges have decided how many such units towns are obligated to build — and where they must be built. However, the Fair Housing Act and certain landmark court cases actually suggest that science, sound planning principles and prudent municipal fiscal policy should determine where these units actually fit.

But you wouldn’t know it to look at the monolithic carbuncles that pass for “housing developments” today in New Jersey. And after all the hubbub, the truth is that the Fair Housing Act is actually being abused to generate more high-priced condos and townhouses than “affordable” units for people that need them, all the while giving short shrift to the limits imposed by how much development the land can support. Affordable Housing – 1. Sprawl – 4.

Affordable housing chaos

In 1975, the state Supreme Court ruled that affordable housing is a constitutional right and that every Garden State municipality has an obligation meet its “fair share.” That arrangement, managed by the state Council on Affordable Housing, worked pretty well until then-Gov. Chris Christie shut it down more than a decade ago.

Chaos followed, and lawyers descended. Many towns, who had long complained their affordable housing obligations (commonly referenced as “numbers”) were staggeringly high and unsupportable, found themselves exposed to lawsuits by developers and punitive assignments of huge quantities of new affordable housing units by the courts.

The developers have been aided by a lawyer’s group that calls itself the Fair Share Housing Center. Its website makes them sound like angels. The FSHC is “a nonprofit advocacy organization that uses legal, policy, and community-building strategies to dismantle decades of racial and economic discrimination in New Jersey and nationally that excludes people from the opportunity to live in safe, healthy, and affordable housing.”

Unsupportable numbers & questionable “settlements”

While that sounds nice, it conceals the simple fact that the FSHC is really just a law firm and its goal is the same as most law firms: to generate income for its partners. State records show annual revenue of more than $2.7 million. (FSHC does nothing to dispel misconceptions that it is a state agency acting with government authority — it is no such thing.)

Here’s how it works. With approval of the courts, FSHC “intervenes” in the municipal planning and approval process. Behind closed doors and without the public present, it has “negotiated” settlements with roughly 350 towns to set each municipality’s requirement for its “fair share” of “affordable” housing — that is, its “number”. The settlements often result in towns rezoning from, for example, one housing unit per acre to 15 or 20 units per acre. To make matters worse, principles of sound land use planning are often thrown to the wayside in these deals. Such ultra-high-density development can result in threats to water quality of nearby protected waterways and other valuable natural resources (think farmland and wildlife habitat and open space).

FSHC calls towns “racist” and “exclusionary” unless they agree to build the staggering numbers of units FSHC demands — no matter what the costs.

You’ve seen the results: Affordable housing sprawl and high-rise developments that seem to appear without notice.

Settling a real obligation, or succumbing to wheeler-dealers?

Local municipal officials say there’s nothing they can do to prevent these monstrosities. They also complain the “settlements” they feel pressured to sign by FSHC’s lawyers are based on wheeling-and-dealing negotiations rather than on hard data and science about what the land and their taxpayers can support.

If a town doesn’t “settle” with the FSHC, the FSHC can sue under a so-called “builder’s remedy” which could allow four market rate (high-priced, for-profit) units for every affordable unit required under a town’s obligation. Thus, 20 new affordable units become 100 total new units — and the builder often bags profits that arise from forced rezoning that’s supposedly done in the service of the poor. The result is affordable housing sprawl.

The typical FSHC settlement deal also includes a blank check: Towns agree to come up with unlimited public funds to complete massive housing projects if the developer cannot obtain federal housing subsidies to pay for them. (See also: Did your town pay off Fair Share Housing Center’s lawyers to “settle” affordable housing threats?)

Here are two excerpts of court-approved FSHC settlement agreements that require undefined, unlimited financial liability to be borne by taxpayers:

“…in the case where an application for outside funding is still pending, the municipality shall provide a stable alternative source, such as municipal bonding, in the event that the funding request is not approved.”


“In the event for any reason… [the] development is not under construction… within 48 months…The Township shall do this by funding the development using municipal funds…

In what can only be described as extortion, FSHC, at the last minute when all other terms are agreed upon, according to municipal officials — demands tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars in “donations” or in “legal fees” before its lawyers will finalize the deal. (For a list of how much taxpayer money 56 towns forked over to FSHC, click here.)

One is left to wonder why any town would assume any cost or financial liability for the delivery of affordable housing via such open-ended deals when the Fair Housing Act specifically says they are not obligated to do so. (See also Fake News: Amended settlement is a “win-win” with less “financial risk”! (NOT!)) But so it goes when lawyers “intervene” and officials cower at the legal consequences of not “going along.”

It’s the classic “Heads I win, tails you lose” scenario, but that may be beginning to change. We’ll tell you how in Part 2.

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“Affordable” Housing Sprawl: Part 2

In Part 1  of “Affordable” Housing Sprawl, we saw how a government leadership vacuum and profit-minded developers and lawyers have plagued New Jersey with the high-rise sprawling residential units that are now appearing across the state, including in rural areas such as Hunterdon County. But the cozy consortium may have finally acquired an able adversary in the Highlands Council.

Highlands Council opens new front against affordable housing sprawl

affordable housing sprawlThe Council’s full name is the Highlands Water Protection and Planning Council. That’s an important detail because protecting water quality requires planning, and the Highlands region for which the Council is responsible covers more than 800,000 acres across 88 towns and parts of seven counties.

The Council’s Executive Director Ben Spinelli said in a press release that it’s not enough for a town to meet its affordable obligations. Towns in the Highlands region “also have an equal, if not more imperative, obligation to protect the drinking water resources for 70 percent of the state’s residents.”

Spinelli notes that providing affordable housing and protecting the environment “are not mutually exclusive goals, but they do require careful and thoughtful attention” and the Council is taking action.

Last month, it awarded a $100,000 contract to an engineering firm to help it and its 88 constituent towns  prepare for the next “round” of affordable obligations (a.k.a. Round 4), which is set to begin in July of 2025. The Council wants to be sure that its master plan “guides decision making when it comes to affordable housing.”

The Council is acting now in part because of what’s happened in the past. In the last wave of affordable housing negotiations, 67 of the 88 towns in the Highlands reached agreements for more than 16,000 affordable units. That’s “far more than the resources of the region can handle,” the Council says.

The work will be done by the Colliers Engineering & Design team that has worked with the Council staff in the past. The team also includes the law firm of Surenian, Edwards, Buzak & Nolan, which the Council believes is “one of the preeminent law firms in the state  … involving affordable housing and related litigation.” The work is to be completed next year and when that happens funding will be available to help towns plan for the next wave of affordable housing obligations.

It now seems other New Jersey towns may have a model to follow to ensure their resources do not succumb to unsupportable affordable housing plans. The underpinnings of this Highlands project may benefit towns that previously buckled under often unjustified pressure to rezone themselves into ultra-high-density residential sprawl.

Questions about the law and about planning

The Highlands Council’s recent statement pointed out that New Jersey faces a serious conflict:

“Although the Fair Housing Act was passed along with the State Planning Act in an effort to ensure sound planning principles guided affordable housing decisions, with the dissolution of the Council on Affordable Housing (COAH) those principles have not remained at the forefront.”

To get an idea of the magnitude of sprawl that is resulting from the FSHC’s aggressive settlements, consider that the courts have estimated that towns are obligated, under Round 3 of the mandate, to deliver 155,000 new affordable housing units. Multiply that by five to get the total number of affordable+market units that would result under the builder’s remedy formula — in the vicinity of 750,000.

Here is a brief sketch of the court’s idea of good land use planning:

FSHC negotiates a settlement with a rural town to build its obligation of 20 units — for the benefit of the poor — on an acre of farm land. But to get FSHC to sign the settlement (or get sued), the town must agree to rezone that acre and four more — from one home per acre to 20 per acre. The extra four acres of farmland will now accommodate 80 market units for the benefit of the developer building the whole thing — affordable housing sprawl.

Who gets the bigger benefit? The poor or the developer?

Without the Fair Housing Act, FSHC and the iron fist of the courts, that developer would never have gotten the town to break its long-time zoning, especially considering New Jersey’s strong “home rule” tradition. No town would volunteer to rezone 4 acres of prime farmland to facilitate an ultra-high density, ultra-profitable 80-unit high-rise. The Fair Housing Act thus yields a few affordable units, but pays off handsomely at a 4:1 ratio to a developer.

Who was the FHA written for? For whose benefit do the courts really interpret the law?

The FSHC and the courts slink off, claiming 20 new homes for the poor and victory over a “racist, exclusionary” rural town. It may be feasible and even desirable for the town to accommodate 20 low- and moderate-income households  — new housing for the local car mechanic, first-year cop, teacher in training and junior sales rep.

But why is the town penalized with the costs of absorbing 80 more high-rise, high-income, high-priced housing units?

Highlands Council confronts the elephant in the room

The new Highlands initiative seems intended to re-focus everyone on what the law really says about good planning to balance affordable housing and natural resources preservation.

Where will N.J. put all those units? In 2008, the Council on Affordable Housing (COAH) issued obligation numbers statewide, based on its calculations of how much vacant land remained in New Jersey for housing. In 2009, led by Clinton Township, 20 towns sued the state and showed COAH’s vacant land analysis was overstated by 60% — by testing it against more reliable data from a Highlands Council build-out analysis.

Where did COAH find all that “vacant” land? Attorney Stuart Koenig explained to the Hunterdon Review (2/19/09): “As many municipalities have complained, we found airports, cemeteries, sewer plants, municipal buildings, county facilities, a detention facility, an incinerator, roadway medians and intersections, rear yards of homes, yard areas of commercial development, open space in condominium and cluster developments, all shown as vacant land… ” where units supposedly could be built.

The Highlands points out the elephant in the room: housing construction approvals are exceeding limits imposed by how much development the land can support — also known as its carrying capacity. (Calculating that capacity is the Highlands Council’s stock in trade. Recall the 16,000 affordable units the Highlands says are “far more than the resources of the region can handle”.)

Does it appear that FSHC is playing a bit fast and loose with the “numbers” that towns in the Highlands are “obligated” to build? It seems nothing has changed since 2009 — and the Highlands Council is still finding errors in court-sanctioned numbers (see sidebar).

Whether or not the Council names the ideological culprit, it is already at serious odds with FSHC’s settlement deals. It appears science, data and the law are about to raise serious questions about the legitimacy of settlement deals the courts have already approved both in and outside the Highlands.

The Highlands: Canary in N.J.’s coal mine?

New Jersey’s other roughly 300 towns and cities are now left to question the onerous settlement deals they signed with FSHC.

Are the deals they made based on facts and hard science about the carrying capacity of the land? Or did FSHC bamboozle them amidst threats and accusations of racism and exclusionary zoning? Most towns have their own engineers, planners and land-use lawyers, but none dedicated — like the Highlands team — to the primary task of protecting their town’s water and natural resources.

The alarm raised by the Highlands Council about over-development echoes the concerns of municipal officials across the entire state. But the 88 towns sitting atop 70% of New Jersey’s drinking water may be the canary in the coal mine. Executive Director Spinelli’s words make it clear that in the Highlands region, the law says the environment must be protected. Cannot the same be said of every town in the nation’s most densely populated state?

In Part 3 we’ll explore what should be obvious: How towns can apply the law and sound planning to ensure that the development of affordable housing does not compromise New Jersey’s limited critical natural resources — or a town’s finances.

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“Affordable” Housing Sprawl: Part 3

affordable housing sprawlIn Part 1 and Part 2 of “Affordable” Housing Sprawl, we considered how a government leadership vacuum and profit-minded developers and lawyers have plagued New Jersey with affordable housing sprawl, and how the Highlands Council is developing new planning and legal guidance to reign in the overbuilding as the next wave of affordable obligations looms.

The Council’s goal is simple: Protect the environment and the drinking water for 70 percent of the state’s residents.

But the Highlands Council is responsible only for the Highlands region, which includes more than 800,000 acres across 88 towns and parts of seven counties.

Clubbing towns like baby harp seals

What’s good for the Highlands may turn out to be good for all New Jersey towns. And how the Highlands will handle the next wave of the affordable obligation may finally put an end to what has been referred to as “affordable housing sprawl.”

Towns outside of the Highlands may recognize that the settlements they are negotiating or have already signed with the so-called Fair Share Housing Center may be profoundly flawed and may deserve reconsideration.

The Fair Housing Act itself, as well as the seminal Mt. Laurel court decisions, seem to be on the Highlands Council’s side — and every town should consider how to take back the law for the advantage of its citizens.

If asked, most New Jersey mayors would say the FSHC is a cudgel used by developers. The late attorney Henry Hill, who sued towns on behalf of developers, was quite outspoken about how easy it is: “I once stated actually in a law review article that municipalities who are faced with Mt. Laurel litigation are not unlike baby harp seals during the periodic Canadian massacres. They can slither and they can squeal, but not for very long.”

Town officials succumb quickly to such legal threats rather than defend their rights. Although a bit indelicate, Henry Hill was right. Today, FSHC carries on Hill’s bullying strategy.

The ultra-high-density rezoning scam

In town after town where well-established zoning has a legal presumption of validity, FSHC forces towns to undo that zoning and adopt ultra-high-density zoning so developers can build loads of highly profitable market housing units.

This is the scam. Fair Share Housing Center cries that towns aren’t building enough affordable housing fast enough — while FSHC is actually helping builders suck up vacant land to build more high-priced housing where more affordables could go.

New Jersey’s problem is not “racist, exclusionary” towns. It’s greedy developers. It’s FSHC’s lawyers that set the table so those developers can gorge on available land. And it’s the courts that facilitate the scam of affordable housing sprawl.

Contrary to the word and spirit of the Fair Housing Act, and in what can only be called a scam, the settlements often violate sound planning practices, dispense with important environmental considerations, and needlessly throw towns into massive debt.

The Highlands Council seems to suggest that legal protections the courts and FSHC have stripped away from towns through intimidation and threats are in fact still in place — but towns are not using them.

The 1975 and 1983 New Jersey Supreme Court Mt. Laurel I and II decisions, and the Fair Housing Act, readily reveal the core rights of towns and property tax payers.

It’s the law: Towns not obligated to pay for affordable housing

“The Supreme Court of New Jersey in its Mount Laurel decisions demands that municipal land use regulations affirmatively afford a reasonable opportunity for a variety and choice of housing including low and moderate cost housing, to meet the needs of people desiring to live there. While provision for the actual construction of that housing by municipalities is not required, they are encouraged but not mandated to expend their own resources to help provide low and moderate income housing.” N.J.S.A. § 52:27D-302h

“Nothing in P.L.1985, c.222 (C.52:27D-301 et al.) shall require a municipality to raise or expend municipal revenues in order to provide low and moderate income housing.” N.J.S.A. § 52:27D-311d

It’s the law: Towns not obligated to ignore sound planning or environmental constraints

“Builders may not be able to build just where they want — our parks, farms, and conservation areas are not a land bank for housing speculators… The specific location of such housing will of course continue to depend on sound municipal land use planning.” Southern Burlington County N.A.A.C.P. v. Township of Mount Laurel, 92 N.J. 158, 211 (N.J. 1983)

“Of at least equal importance, the criteria will not necessarily result in the imposition of the obligation in accordance with sound planning. There may be areas that fit the ‘developing’ description that should not yield to ‘inevitable future residential, commercial and industrial demand and growth.’ Those areas may contain prime agricultural land, open spaces and areas of scenic beauty; apart from these their development might impose unacceptable demands on public investment to extend the infrastructure required to support such growth.” Southern Burlington County N.A.A.C.P. v. Township of Mount Laurel, 92 N.J. 158, 224 (N.J. 1983)

The Highlands Council’s thrust to enforce water-quality protection laws to curtail unsupportable new housing of any kind seems to be a warning to the courts themselves — and to the courts’ hit-men at FSHC.

Outdated courts and judges

Echoing the executive director of the Highlands Council is R. William Potter, a leading attorney in land use, environment and energy at Potter & Dickson. Potter explicitly takes to task the outdated activism of courts and judges that seem to favor the always extremist and often thuggish FSHC lawyers. In a New Jersey Spotlight op-ed sure to raise cries of blasphemy from FSHC’s adherents, Let’s reexamine impact of the ‘Mount Laurel doctrine’, Potter also chides lazy and unsophisticated municipal personnel and their consultants:

“It’s high time for planners, lawyers, municipal officials, environmental groups and journalists, among others, to take a deep dive into the record of how the ‘Mount Laurel doctrine’ has been construed and applied over the past four decades: What did it mean then and what does it mean today, and — most important — what are the lessons learned and not learned.

“A further question that has received scant attention is the impact on the judiciary, which may raise delicate issues of judicial fairness and even-handedness.” -R. William Potter

With the sometimes questionable support of certain judges (see South Brunswick Accuses Judge Of Conflict Of Interest In Affordable Housing Battle) FSHC has bullied hundreds of towns into settlement deals that deliver many more market units than affordable units.

Together with the courts, FSHC clearly puts market-housing construction and builders’ profits ahead of sound planning, water quality, environmental protection and prudent public fiscal practices. It is impossible to imagine how FSHC’s disregard does not hurt “the poor.”

For example, when the Highlands Council warns that FSHC has negotiated settlements with Highlands towns for 16,000 affordable units — more than the region’s resources can support — doesn’t resulting ground water pollution infect new affordable housing residents, too? What does FSHC tell the judge at the required “fairness hearing” where each settlement receives court approval? (For an illustration of how haphazard fairness hearings can be, see Clinton Township violates Sunshine Law, interferes with affordable housing fairness hearing.)

A more robust approach to affordable housing & protection of natural resources

Perhaps the Highlands approach will show the way for towns to fulfill a legitimate obligation to provide housing, while also protecting — for residents old and new, well-to-do, and of average and lesser means —  their critical natural resources from exploitation by profiteers who have selectively interpreted the law to their advantage.

There are at least two stark examples in the law that reveal towns have always had the power to control their planning, their natural resources, their finances, and their future.

  1. It’s clear in the law and in the Mount Laurel Court decisions that sound planning, water quality, farmland, open spaces and scenic beauty are not to be compromised in the course of building affordable housing.
  1. The Fair Housing Act makes it clear that towns are not obligated to raise or expend municipal revenues to pay for affordable housing.

Asserting protections under the law does not make towns “racist” or “exclusionary.” We’ll have to see whether the FSHC tries to paint the Highlands Council with the same well-worn brush.

Questions for the courts

It’s time for municipalities to stop cowering before the cudgel. They are not helpless baby harp seals. There is no requirement to bond for millions or tens of millions of dollars to build housing of any kind — or to make “donations” to FSHC’s lawyers to get them to sign a settlement deal.

It’s time for municipalities to use the law against the indefensible affordable housing sprawl loosed by the courts. Towns must no longer stand by for the gun-on-the table negotiating style of FSHC’s lawyers — it’s clear the Highlands Council won’t.

This instantly begs the question every town should immediately ask the courts to answer: Will you review all the FSHC settlements against a legal and data model like the Highlands will use? Will you validate the FSHC’s “numbers”?

Affordable housing, YES. Affordable housing sprawl, NO

The Highlands Council’s robust new technical and legal tools may profoundly change the way all towns in New Jersey calculate the number of affordable housing units they are required to build — finally facilitating the delivery of legitimate affordable housing that limited natural resources and taxpayers can support.

Certainly the state can achieve its goals without turning the Highlands region and the rest of New Jersey into a failing land bank for housing speculators.

Part 1  Part 2

Special thanks to veteran news editor Curtis Leeds, affordable housing attorney Mike Jedziniak, and Highlands Coalition Policy & Communications Director Elliott Ruga.

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Commissioners try to sell county dump: A garbage story

county dumpDo you use the county dump, a.k.a. the Hunterdon County Transfer Station on Petticoat Lane in Clinton Township, to dispose rubbish and recycling?

The county commissioners are about to sell it to a private company because — after over 25 years of public ownership — they suggest they have no idea how to manage this significant public asset.

If you’ve ever wondered what your county commissioners actually do, you might be surprised to learn they’d really rather do less! (Oh, all those pesky constituents who expect us to know what we’re doing after they elect us!)

“Let’s dump the dump! It’s easier than managing it!”

The county dump has been owned by the county for over 25 years. Commissioners Zachary Rich and Shaun Van Doren are running for reelection this year, but don’t want to be bothered with the tough job of managing the dump. They would rather leave you to pay whatever a private business wants to charge — if the buyer even keeps the dump open to the public.

Correction: Van Doren is the only incumbent up for reelection this year.
(So, why do Rich and Van Doren want to keep their jobs?)

Once it’s sold, Hunterdon residents that rely on the dump will be subjected to the whims of whoever buys it. (Hint: Taxpayers own the dump, but the county hired your favorite garbage company, Waste Management, Inc., to run it. So guess who’s likely to buy it?)

A chance to speak up, demand answers

The county is required by law to hold two public hearings prior to putting the facility up for sale by bid. The first hearing, on June 6, will introduce an ordinance for the sale. The second public hearing will be held on June 27 at the Clinton Township Municipal Building on Route 31. Both meetings will be at 5:30 p.m., when most people are at work.

This is the time for the public to ask questions, demand answers, and to comment.

Political double-talk

The commissioners have offered no meaningful reasons for dumping the dump, no financial justification, and no evidence that the sale will benefit taxpayers or residential or commercial users.

Let’s take a look at the pure political-speak offered by Commissioner Director Zachary Rich at the commissioners’ April 18 meeting. As reported in the Hunterdon Review:

“Now is the time to move forward on the sale of the transfer station,” said Rich.

The county has owned the waste facility for over 25 years. Why is now the time to sell it? Rich doesn’t volunteer any real explanations.

A garbage story

The story Rich and County Administrator Brad Myhre throw at the public is perhaps best described as, well, garbage. The county serves up no compelling rationale or details that  support their decision, just useless, bureaucratic, political double-talk.

When have we seen this before? A past example of the commissioners’ back-room decision-making was revealed during the Route 629 debacle. While publicly questioning the New Jersey Water Supply Authority’s plans to permanently close a major roadway artery, internal county documents revealed the county was on board with the NJWSA’s plans from the start — until a dedicated group of residents took the lid off that smelly charade.
An astute taxpayer who has watched the commissioners B.S. their way again and again through “public disclosure” might reasonably conclude the real reason for the sale of the dump is to generate cash they can apply to their “conservative financial management.”

In other words, the quick proceeds from this rushed garbage sale might plug a whole lot of holes in the county’ budget. Besides, not having to manage a dump operation would sure be a relief — the commissioners could get back to the hard work of channeling taxpayer funds and federal and state grant funds to their favorite political patrons.

The dump story peddled by the commissioners appears to be a garbage story. They have offered no defensible reason for selling off the dump.

The “governmental bureaucracy” behind the problem

Director Rich slips and blames the very body he leads — the board of commissioners — for the “governmental bureaucracy” that has been derelict in managing the dump properly. Yet he wants the public to trust a decision of the very same bureaucrats to sell off this important public asset.

But Rich avoids any allusions to the drawbacks and downsides of turning ownership over to a commercial entity. The oblique double-talk gets worse:

“For many years the county has examined the potential privatization of the transfer station so as to remove governmental bureaucracy for what should be a private business operation.”

So this decision has been in the making “for many years”? There must be loads of credible documentation in support of the sale. Where are the bureaucrats keeping it hidden?

What have been the results of those examinations of “potential privatization”? What factors were considered in all those years? The public deserves to know.

Disclose all the details before the first hearing

Rich announced two public hearings about the proposed sale. This is required under N.J. law before a governing body can sell a public asset. But how can taxpayers ask questions and participate in a public hearing if they don’t have the facts?

Rich is admitting that for decades the county commissioners have been subjecting residents to a “government bureaucracy” behind the dump. He says it “should be a private business operation.” But other than political platitudes Rich offers nothing to support what seems to be merely his wishes as a politician.

  • Why should the transfer station be a private business operation?
  • Where is the analysis and due diligence?
  • Who actually made this decision?

The only way to conduct above-board public hearings is for the commissioners to release all records and data about the county’s management and deliberations relating to the dump prior to the hearings.

It would certainly be embarrassing if a subsequent, massive OPRA request for internal documents exposed poor decision making — or chicanery. (Just ask the N.J. State Water Authority: Documents reveal scramble for last-minute justification of route 629 closing.)

Disclose the full financials

TapInto Flemington-Raritan reports:

“The transfer station has an annual operating budget of $194,320, according to the proposed 2023 proposed county budget.”

No other financial information has been reported. It would be helpful if the commissioners were to fully disclose the dump’s financials, and explain any issues that support divestiture of the dump operation.

Absent information about revenues (like user fees) generated by the facility, or about grants, subsidies, or other funding the county gets for it, any public hearing would be an insult to the public. For example, Hunterdon County has received significant infrastructure funding from the state and federal governments. How does this net out against the costs of operating infrastructure like a county dump? It’s clear the commissioners are not telling us everything.

Either way, taxpayers (a.k.a. consumers) pay more

According to the Review:

“Waste Management Inc. currently operates the transfer station site while the county retains ownership, and the site’s current operating agreement between the county and company will expire on Dec. 31 of this year.”

How much does WMI pay the county, or does the county pay WMI? This stuff matters if taxpayers are to give approval or to nix any sale.

Rich admits residents will pay more when he drops this bomb that should raise the eyebrows of every taxpayer:

“There are substantial infrastructure improvements necessary to continue operations at the transfer station and those costs are better borne by a private investor rather than our county’s taxpayers.”

Maybe Rich believes his constituents are silly suckers who will swallow his sly pitch that, if he unloads the dump, taxpayers will somehow save money.


If the dump is sold, why wouldn’t the cost of improvements be passed on to users, just as the costs would be borne by taxpayers if the county were to make the improvements? Exactly why is this not a zero sum game?

Or what game is Director Rich playing? Maybe he’s showing you that famous shell game the Hunterdon commissioners like to call “conservative financial management” every time they run for reelection.

No demonstrated benefits to taxpayers

At the very least, the commissioners owe taxpayers a detailed rundown on what improvements need to be made to the transfer station and why, and the estimated costs.

If they can’t document estimated costs, how can they expect the public to believe selling the dump is the right decision?

Director Rich and Commissioner Shaun Van Doren are running for reelection this year.  It would behoove them to be a lot more transparent — and honest.

The commissioners have offered absolutely no evidence that the users and taxpayers would benefit in any way from the sale of the transfer station. If the commissioners were to suggest, “We’ll tell the public about all that at the public hearing,” that would be a railroad job designed to fulfill the legal obligation of conducting one of two public hearings, but without a real opportunity for informed public participation.

(Perhaps it is no accident that the public hearings will be held at 5:30 p.m., when most people are still at work and unable to attend. The commissioners are notorious for discouraging public participation and for using public hearings as nothing more than CYA.)

What the public needs to know

In order to conduct an honest and frank public hearing about the proposed sale of the transfer station, the commissioners need to explain why they failed to manage the transfer station effectively for the benefit of users and taxpayers.

The privatization of public utilities and other public assets has proven disastrous elsewhere. What is the role of government if not to manage assets entrusted to it by the public?

  • Are the commissioners trying to unload a valuable public asset merely because they don’t know what they’re doing?
  • Is the sale a fait accompli and are the public hearings just an unavoidable charade?
  • Are we looking at a sweetheart deal in this sale?
  • Is the transfer station the problem, or is lack of management acumen on the part of the commissioners the problem?

Users of the dump complain the facility is an eyesore and poorly maintained. Selling it to a purely profit-motivated commercial entity seems more likely to raise user costs and lower quality of service simply because users will not have any leverage at all.

Why are they selling it?

A well-managed dump would not operate in the red. A dump should generate revenue and even profits. What the commissioners are clearly telling us is that they want to dump the dump because they’re losing money on it — or maybe they just need the cash that a sale would generate. But are they losing money on it because it’s a bad asset, or because they are incapable stewards?

If you use it, you need to know why the commissioners really want to sell your county dump — before a private buyer jacks up fees and before your government gives up control of the quality of service you already pay for.

You should vote

So, you are probably still wondering, What do the county commissioners actually do? Apparently as little as they can possibly get away with, while still taxing you $79.2 million. The commissioners are raising the real county tax levy by $6.1 million (8.3%) over 2022, no matter what they claim about a “flat tax rate.”

You should vote in the commissioner election this November — after separating the garbage from the truth.

You should demand answers

The two public hearings are your chance to make the commissioners accountable — and to protect an important public asset.

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A new model to fight sprawl: Citizens sue their own towns

More and more citizens in New Jersey are standing up to bad municipal government decisions to approve more sprawl in the name of phony “redevelopment” — while handing developers sweetheart deals for ultra-high-profit projects that don’t belong in their towns.

redevelopmentLike the Clinton Township Community Coalition (CTCC) did in Clinton Township during the Windy Acres planning board approval process (and in later projects), these groups are organizing and hiring lawyers and filing lawsuits against their elected representatives.

(Clinton Township’s official but very spare “Windy Acres history” doesn’t mention a word about the CTCC or its legal actions against the mayor and council.)

Citizens sue their town

A recent action in Westfield, NJ provides a simple model for citizens opposing sprawl ordinances. Excerpts from an nj.com column:

Residents sue N.J. town over plan to redevelop shuttered Lord & Taylor site

A group representing some residents of Westfield has filed a lawsuit against the town over a plan to redevelop a former Lord & Taylor store and several other downtown parcels. Westfield Advocates for Responsible Development, and its officers, Frank Fusaro, Carla Bonacci and Alison Carey, are named as plaintiffs in the legal filing that challenges an ordinance that was passed by the Westfield Council on Feb. 14.

The council voted to allow HBC, the owner of the Lord & Taylor, and its real estate arm, Streetworks Development, to build One Westfield Plaza.

The lawsuit says that the plan continued to move forward despite inconsistencies with the town’s Master Plan and comments from residents about the plan’s questionable financial benefits, traffic, the cost of the parking decks, and other issues.

“Despite numerous requests to study further the adverse impacts of the redevelopment plan, the governing body” adopted the ordinance, the lawsuit states.

The single count in the lawsuit alleges that Westfield’s approval of the redevelopment ordinance was arbitrary, capricious, unreasonable and in contravention of law.

“The defendant, in reaching its decision, failed to adequately consider the economic impact, excess density, traffic, parking costs and environmental impacts of the development being permitted through the adoption of the redevelopment plan,” the lawsuit states.

It asks the court to reverse and vacate the approval of the ordinance, award plaintiff’s attorney’s fees and court costs and grant other relief the court deems appropriate.

Demanding a voice for citizens

The key here is that the Westfield lawsuit demands a citizen-friendly legal interpretation of what a planning board process should do — give a presumption of validity to concerns expressed by the public.

The suit demands that town officials “adequately consider” issues that planning board routinely brush aside:

  • economic impact
  • excess density
  • traffic
  • parking costs
  • environmental impacts

Planning board attorneys (representing towns) routinely interpret land-use law in the favor of the applicant developer — to avoid lawsuits from the developer.

“The lawsuit says that the plan continued to move forward despite inconsistencies with the town’s Master Plan and comments from residents about the plan’s questionable financial benefits, traffic, the cost of the parking decks, and other issues.”

“Despite numerous requests to study further the adverse impacts of the redevelopment plan, the governing body” adopted the ordinance, the lawsuit states.

These lawyers go overboard in their conservative advice to planning boards, zoning boards and municipal governments.

The result is approvals of bad projects which mayors and town councils justify by crying,  “We had no choice!”

A new model to stop sprawl

There is always a choice. When Clinton Township made the wrong choices with Windy Acres and Pulte Homes, the CTCC — a group of citizens that grew to the thousands — made the choice to sue its own government.

Now Westfield citizens are doing the same. Their legal action may be the only good model for responsible citizens to use when their government runs out of control, powered by the questionable advice of lawyers who are terrified to go into a courtroom to defend the interests of a town and its citizens.

Would a town rather fight a pernicious developer, or get sued by its own citizens?

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Still no official NJWSA statement about future of Route 629 over Round Valley

future of route 629Yesterday morning the N.J. Water Supply Authority reopened Route 629 over Round Valley Reservoir following months of public outcry. A caravan of 20 vehicles took a drive over the road late in the afternoon, celebrating the success of local activists intent on reopening the road.

Following a series of exposes published here over the summer, it was those activists that forced the hand of the NJWSA.

However, the NJWSA has issued no official statement that Route 629 will remain open. In fact, the only relevant official statement the agency has made is that it continues to work on “updating” a secret report that will justify permanent closure of the road for “security reasons.”

(Video courtesy of Jonathan Kinkel)

No statement from NJWSA

The Hunterdon County Commissioners recently announced the reopening of 629 and asserted that the NJWSA would not close the road again. However, NJWSA — owner and operator of the Round Valley Reservoir dams and dikes — has not issued any official statement that it has abandoned its ongoing efforts to close 629 permanently. There is no announcement on the NJWSA’s website or in its Round Valley Updates page.

Wise bureaucrats go silent during times of public uproar… but keep working like busy bees “in the back room” while the public stops paying attention.

NJWSA works on “update” to study that will support permanent closure of Route 629

In July NJWSA claimed its decision to close the road permanently was “based on recommendations identified in a [2012] report prepared by U.S. Department of Homeland Security and U.S. Army Corp of Engineers in coordination with N.J. Department of Environmental Protection’s Bureau of Dam Safety.”

But the NJWSA continues to refuse to release the 10 year old report to the public. It has reportedly provided a copy of the outdated report to Clinton Township Mayor Brian Mullay, instructing him that the report was to be kept secret.

NJWSA said it already had the official support of NJDEP.

Homeland Security denies involvement

The NJWSA stated during the summer that they were working with federal agencies to “update” the old dam security report, which they expect will justify plans to permanently close 629.

There is no indication that the study update is not proceeding.

But was the federal government actually in support of the permanent road closure “for security reasons?”

Congressman Tom Malinowski made a surprise visit to the NJWSA in early August. That visit seems to have confirmed what was revealed in internal documents obtained under the Sunshine Law: U.S. Homeland Security had no involvement in the decision to close 629 permanently for “security reasons” as NJWSA Executive Director Marc Brooks repeatedly claimed.

Internal e-mails obtained by ExMayor.com seem to confirm it.

Reprinted from Documents reveal scramble for last-minute justification of route 629 closing

July 6-7
DEP’s John Kale asks Department of Homeland Security whether it knows “of any document that says roads should not be placed on high hazard dams in particular ones that are on the critical dam list?”

DHS responds “No, it is up to the owner/operator to determine what are acceptable risk to them and what protective measures if any they want to implement to protect their facilities. All of our documents are voluntary guidelines and best practices for suggested risk mitigation, protective measures, etc.”

In other words, despite the 2012 report, DHS will not comment on a specific site or road. Nonetheless, WSA claims on its website that the old DHS “report” is the basis for closing the road. View doc

More simply, it seems the NJWSA had been lying to the public. While Malinowski’s office made no statement about what transpired in the meeting, an aide confirmed that his office is routinely advised in advance by Homeland Security prior to any activity in his district. There was no record of any such notice of Homeland Security’s involvement in the planning of the road closure.

It does not seem unlikely that Malinowski, who is on the Congressional Homeland Security Committee, cautioned the NJWSA about misrepresenting the Department of Homeland Security’s involvement in its plans.

Planning for permanent road closure appears to continue

Just a few days after Malinowski’s visit, the NJWSA put everything on hold.

On August 8, MyCentralJersey reported that “The New Jersey Water Supply Authority has paused a request for Hunterdon County to close Route 629 around Round Valley Reservoir until an updated study is completed on possible security concerns.”

Reporter Mike Deak’s article went on to say: “the authority’s Capital Projects Committee has recommended an update to that study. The authority has begun discussions with the state Department of Environmental Protection, the New Jersey State Police and Homeland Security about updating the study. Until that study is completed, the authority will hold off asking the Hunterdon County commissioners to close the road.”

The NJWSA has never officially stated that its original plans have changed, only that it is holding off.

Playing the public relations game

Read the reports about Commissioner Lanza’s meeting with NJWSA Executive Director Marc Brooks:

Lanza said that Marc Brooks, the Authority’s executive director, agreed to study long-term security enhancements that do not involve the road’s closure.

Studies. Not promises. Not a commitment. It may seem “clear” that NJWSA has committed to not closing Route 629, but that’s not what Lanza said to the press, and the NJWSA has continued to play the public relations game it has played throughout this debacle.

Again and again, the NJWSA’s “positions” and “statements” about 629 have appeared  unofficially and second-hand on online news outlets, on the Clinton Township website, and now in second-party reports from a county commissioner. The NJWSA has studiously avoided publishing official statements of its own, so it always has plausible deniability.

It’s an old PR trick: Don’t say anything yourself; let others say what you want the public to hear, then go about your business. The NJWSA has not officially stated that it will not permanently close Route 629 over Round Valley Reservoir.

Will there be another roadblock on Route 629? Drive carefully.

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Exxon Warehouse: Clinton Township zoning says NO

exxon warehouse

Prologis warehouse, Chambersburg, PA

How do you stop an Exxon warehouse? It’s simple: Clinton Township citizens and  neighbors who would be affected show up at the next council meeting, Wednesday, October 26 at 7:00 P.M. and tell their elected representatives on the council:

“Uphold our zoning! No amendments to permit warehouses!”

It seems that fast on the heels of our report on Thursday, Oct. 20, Exxon to bomb Clinton Township with 4 million SF warehouse, Exxon Mobil quickly decided to disclose what it has been quietly discussing for some time with Clinton Township officials. Exxon was reportedly going to announce this at a future council session: Letter from Exxon.

It’s now clear that Exxon is proposing a huge warehouse to be operated on Exxon’s long-time property by Prologis, which has massive warehouses strewn across New Jersey and other states.

Warehouses not permitted

It’s not clear why the township would even entertain this proposal. The township’s ROM-1 zoning does not permit warehouses.

Here’s what Exxon wants, from its letter:

exxon request for zoning change

Exxon’s entire site is within the ROM-1 zone, or the Research, Office and Manufacturing district. This defines what a property owner may and may not do within a zone.


All Clinton Township has to do is say NO

In other words, the Clinton Township council can simply and politely tell Exxon NO, and do so on solid legal ground.

But Exxon is making a special request. Exxon is…

“…requesting that the Township Council consider amending the Property’s prevailing zoning to permit such a use.”

Why do we have zoning?

Zoning is the set of rules a community develops, under New Jersey’s Municipal Land Use Law (MLUL), to ensure the wishes of its residents are enforced. A town cannot implement arbitrary zoning — that would be illegal.

If the council agreed to “amend” the ROM-1 zoning to appease Exxon, what happens when other ROM-1 property owners ask for the same? Does the council upend the will of its residents on a case-by-case basis? Or, what is the law for? Will residents have to show up at public hearings in every single case after they’ve already enshrined a law that does not permit warehouses?”

Prologis would love that.

Without turning this into a detailed lesson in land use, a town’s governing body (often with advice from its planning board) legislates, or frames in its laws, what may and may not be built within its borders. Of course, these land-use rules must be consistent with State of New Jersey laws. Before zoning can be enacted through legislation by a town’s governing body, public notices are issued and the public (including developers and Exxon) are welcome to comment before a vote is taken by the council to enshrine the zoning into law.

Clinton Township’s restrictions on what can be built in the ROM-1 zone are defined by its community for the good of its community. These land-use laws are published and readily available to anyone considering building anything anywhere in the township.

Exxon wants to “make a deal”

This is how Exxon cues up a “friendly negotiation” with elected officials and with the planning board — when Clinton Township doesn’t need to negotiate anything.

Such imprudent “negotiations” are how Prologis builds fantastical structures that:

  • introduce acres of impervious ground cover (rooftops and asphalt driveways and parking lots) that:
  • impede groundwater recharge (that ‘s how aquifers refill residents’ wells)
  • create storm water run-off (that pollutes streams and the water supply)
  • generate thousands of diesel truck trips per day
  • destroy air quality, and
  • introduce massive amounts of traffic congestion and noise.

That’s why Exxon wants to cue up meetings — so it can make a deal.

Given that existing law already does not permit warehouses, it would be imprudent for Clinton Township to even consider wading into the murky legal swamp of “a negotiation.”

So why is the township even considering warehouses?

A developer has the right to appear before the township council and planning board and request a variance to legally depart in specific ways from the zoning. The planning board may approve a variance request if the applicant meets certain criteria, but it does not have to.

That’s why the township is even considering this, barring any inappropriate influence.

But in this case, Exxon does not even seem to be asking for a variance. Exxon is asking Clinton Township to consider entirely changing the zoning for the Exxon site.

“…amending the Property’s prevailing zoning to permit [warehouses].”

Exxon wants Clinton Township to change the law to suit Exxon, not the residents.

Why do we have zoning?

Towns have zoning to protect their residents. Residents elect officials to make the laws and to enforce them for the benefit and safety of the residents. These laws are made through an often cumbersome process: it takes a lot of work for a community to decide what’s best for all.

Clinton Township’s zoning is legal, it is clear, and it is what the residents decided they want for their community.

Warehouses are not permitted. In fairness and out of respect for a significant corporate resident, the council might nonetheless entertain Exxon’s presentation at a public meeting.

But the township’s position is already clear and enshrined in its laws.

How to Say It: “Warehouses are not permitted.”

That is all the township council and/or planning board needs to say to Exxon. The planning board isn’t even required to hear an application for a warehouse. (Why would busy, unpaid planning board volunteers waste their time, when they’ve already invested their time to make the township’s position on warehouses into law?)

The township’s only justification for NO needs to be nothing more than the very existence of its ROM-1 zoning.

Reprise: Exxon is looking for “a deal”

Could the council and planning board allow Exxon to build a warehouse anyway?

Yes, they could. They could “make a deal.”

For example, if Exxon can’t build a warehouse, it might threaten to build some extreme version of what the zoning does permit, and use the threat to get a deal whereby the township agrees to change its zoning to permit a warehouse.

Or, Exxon could point out (as it did in its letter) that a new warehouse could provide “a significant increase in real estate tax revenue.” But taxes on a warehouse are calculated not on what’s in the building, but on what the building is: a tin shell with relatively little value. The taxes would never compensate for the pains the warehouse would inflict on the township. This kind of deal is called “chasing ratables.”

making-sausageOr, Exxon could offer to improve “prevailing traffic problems,” as it did in its letter. But the clever letter makes no mention of dealing with the future traffic problems that potentially thousands of truck trips per day would be generated by a 4 million square foot warehouse. (See ‘Warehouses in their backyards’: when Amazon expands, these communities pay the price.)

In politics, these kinds of negotiations are referred to as “how sausage is made.” If you look, you’d never swallow what you see.

What will the council do?

It might seem clear what the township’s council should do — after all, it’s in the law!

But the council’s recent behavior with the New Jersey Water Supply Authority suggests council members are easily intimidated and overly impressed by seemingly powerful external forces. In the Route 629 case, council quickly bowed to a state agency that in fact has no power over the township or the county. Rather than say NO to permanent closing of a critical roadway, the council punted and said it wasn’t up to them to decide the fate of Route 629.

The council in fact had the power to say NO. When it failed to do so, the public rose up and had to do it for themselves.

What will the council do about enforcing and defending its zoning? It can work for and with its constituents, or it can replay Exxon’s song about why it’s a good idea to make a deal and allow a 4 million square foot warehouse.

Reprise: How do citizens of Clinton Township stop an Exxon  warehouse?

Clinton Township residents and their mayor and council need to be clear, firm and resolute. Council can support the law and the community:

“Build under our zoning, or don’t build. Please go read our law. We’re under no obligation to defend our land-use laws or to negotiate warehouses. NO.”

no warehousesAn elected official’s obligation to their citizens is to apply the law. Not to make deals — or sausage.

The public’s prerogative is to expect and insist that its government use existing laws to protect the community.

What can citizens do? It’s simple: citizens show up at the next council meeting, Wednesday, October 26 at 7:00 P.M. and tell their elected representatives on the council: “Uphold our zoning! No sausage! No deals! No amendments to permit warehouses!”

CORRECTION: Exxon is zoned ROM-1, which does not permit warehouses. This article incorrectly referenced C-ROM zoning, which expressly prohibits warehouses. The article has been corrected.

HOWEVER: General Provision 165-93 provides that “Where a use is not specifically permitted in a zone district, it is prohibited.” So a warehouse in this case is both not permitted, and prohibited by exclusion.

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Exxon to bomb Clinton Township with 4 million SF warehouse


Nike warehouse, TN, 2.8 million SF

Exxon Mobil Corporation has notified Mayor Brian Mullay that it plans to sell off hundreds of its 800 acres on Route 22 & 31. Sources familiar with the matter said  that a 4 million square-foot warehouse is reportedly planned for for an unknown tenant.

That’s approximately 92 acres of facility alone and, in addition, paved driveways and parking areas that will dramatically reduce groundwater recharge and increase storm water run-off.

4 million square feet of warehouse would qualify the project as one of the top 10 largest facilities of its kind in North America.

Will mayor and council “refer” it to the planning board?

Exxon will need approvals from the township’s planning board and possibly the zoning board. But first, the council will likely need to vote to refer any application to the board.

This is a common way for mayors and council members to “bless” a project while also “washing their hands of it” — and thus leave the planning board to “hold the bag.” What residents are likely to hear from their elected officials is:

“Oh, don’t worry, folks! This still has to go through the planning board! Nothing is approved yet! You’ll have loads of opportunities to comment on this and make your feelings known! It’s up to the planning board!”

(This is how Mayor John Higgins and his council — some of whom are still in office — ran and hid after approving over 800 affordable housing units in the dark of night in 2017.)

The fact is, the mayor and council have enormous influence over whether a “big box” like this even gets to the loading dock.

Public knows less than Exxon employees

For months Exxon reportedly has been having confidential back-room meetings with Mullay, former mayor John Higgins (a retired Merck land development executive with ties to Exxon), township planners and other officials. If Exxon brings formal plans to the Planning Board, board members that have been involved — including Mullay and Higgins — may have to recuse themselves from the review and approval process.

While mayor and council have kept the negotiations strictly under cover, Exxon has already issued an Exxon Employee Bulletin (file dated October 12) outlining a plan to sell “surplus land adjacent to our Clinton [Township], New Jersey research facility.”

Thousands of diesel truck trips per day possible

The plan reportedly includes a new traffic lane on Route 31 to accommodate thousands of truck trips per day, connecting not to I-78 but to Route 22, further exacerbating congestion on local highways. The Route 31 access road to the site is near the township’s #1 highway deathtrap, the intersection of Route 31 and Country Club Drive.

For the benefit of getting toilet paper, books and other necessities from Amazon in mere hours, residents will have to deal with the estimated thousands of trucks that will be spewing out of the site each day into the most congested intersection in Hunterdon County: the Route 22/31/78 “mixing bowl” at the Petticoat Road intersection.

As a reference point, an Amazon warehouse of just 680,000 square feet in Fontana, CA, generates nearly 6,000 vehicle trips per day, including more than 2,300 diesel truck trips. Such massive warehouses are known to create equally massive amounts of air, water and noise pollution in addition to highway congestion.

N.J. residents mobilize against massive warehouses

11 warehouses each the size of 18 football fields have been built in 2020 alone along Pennsylvania’s I-78/I-81 corridor.

In N.J., angry residents of West Windsor have organized to fight a 5.5 million square foot warehouse. In Salem and Cumberland Counties residents are opposing similar invasive projects. The battle has been engaged in White Township, Warren County for several years against two Jaindl warehouses proposed at 2.6 million square feet.

Clinton Township officials are already familiar with local activism against powerful state agencies and big developers alike. Over 3,500 residents organized to fight and stop the 1,100 housing-unit Windy Acres development. Over 2,500 have petitioned to force the New Jersey Water Supply Authority to re0pen County Route 629. The question is, will mayor and council go along with this Exxon deal and face the wrath of their constituents again?

Why is Exxon doing this to Clinton Township?

Exxon is telling its employees not to worry about their jobs. Jobs will not be affected. The purpose of the project is to raise money for the company:

“This is simply an opportunity to realize the value of our global property portfolio and capture additional operating efficiencies.”

Exxon says it

“has engaged with parties interested in potentially purchasing and developing the surplus land. We anticipate approaching the Clinton Township Council regarding the potential development at a future Council meeting.”

Exxon is holding a meeting for its employees about the matter on November 7. The next township council meeting is Wednesday, October 27. The mayor and council have made no announcements to township residents. Rather, they reportedly have taken measures to keep this information from the public to date.

Exxon has been cultivating support

Exxon is apparently sweetening the deal by offering to donate 120 acres of its 800 to the township for open space and recreation, and to help rebuild township hiking trails. If the donation includes areas that lie over massive limestone deposits, known as karst, on the Exxon property, the land is probably undevelopable anyway. Karst is known for collapsible underground caves that leave massive sinkholes behind.

In 2019 township councilwoman Amy Switlyk announced that Exxon awarded a $45,500 “grant” to the Environmental Commission to support “environmental education.” As council liaison to the EC, Switlyk has made herself responsible for all things environmental. How susceptible is she to Exxon’s offers in a quid pro quo? Since she is running for re-election, along with councilman Bill Glaser, it will be interesting to see how the two vote about referring the big-box warehouse plan to the planning board, knowing the water, air and noise pollution such a project will bring.

In fact, it will be interesting to see how candid the entire council is about the matter, and whether they once again play their game of “We have no control when special interests and big money attack Clinton Township! It’s up to the planning board now! Land-use law ties our hands! Let’s just make the best of it!”

Then there’s this classic, if overused and disingenuous political foil: “A warehouse will generate lots of tax revenue for us!” Remember where you read that while you research towns that have used such deal-with-the-devil windfalls to actually decrease taxes.

Do Clinton Township’s elected officials have what it takes to do the right thing — for the residents? Or do they have to be publicly shamed into it once again?

It probably depends on how many residents show up at upcoming council meetings.

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Malinowski meets with NJWSA, 629 closure on hold

[An earlier version of this article suggested the proposal to permanently close 629 is “dead in the water.” The title has been edited to reflect that it’s merely “on hold.” -Ed.]

On August 4, 2022 U.S. Congressman Tom Malinowski (D) met with officials of the New Jersey Water Supply Authority on behalf of constituents to raise questions about the proposed permanent closure of Hunterdon County Route 629.

Malinowski was recently asked for help by area residents that oppose the proposed permanent closure of the road that goes over a Round Valley Reservoir dam.

This morning a Malinowski spokesperson acknowledged the congressman’s meeting last Thursday with the NWSA.

Will 629 re-open?

Route 629Today MyCentralJersey.com reported that the NJWSA’s plan to permanently close 629 has been “put on hold,” following a recommendation of the Authority’s Capital Projects Committee.

The Hunterdon Review has also reported on the hold.

MyCentralJersey reported the road closure will be on pause “until an updated study is completed on possible security concerns.”

There is no indication whether or when 629 will be re-opened, although work related to the road appears near complete. (See photo, courtesy of Robert Quinlan.) But the “informal proposal” — on which the NJWSA based its requests for formal resolutions of support by Clinton Township and Lebanon Borough — seems to be on hold, at least for now, apparently due to the Malinowski meeting.

Proposal to close 629 appears dead in the water, for now

The MyCentralJersey.com article goes on to say the proposed road closure was “prompted by a confidential study by the Department of Homeland Security and the Army Corps of Engineers.”

However, “the authority’s Capital Projects Committee has recommended an update to that study. The authority has begun discussions with the state Department of Environmental Protection, the New Jersey State Police and Homeland Security about updating the study. Until that study is completed, the authority will hold off asking the Hunterdon County commissioners to close the road.”

Coming just days after the U.S. Congressman met with WSA officials about the matter, it seems concerned residents have an advocate in Tom Malinowski.

Flurry of activity

Internal NJWSA e-mails obtained by ExMayor.com, dated June and July, reveal a flurry of attempts by Water Authority officials to come up with last-minute justifications to close 629 — after unyielding protests from area residents.

Water Authority e-mails to and from U.S. Homeland Security and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers appear, from these documents, to have been fruitless and embarrassing.

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Documents reveal scramble for last-minute justification of route 629 closing

ExMayor.com has obtained official records from the New Jersey Water Supply Authority  under the NJ Sunshine Law that reveal the Authority scrambling to find after-the-fact justification to support its proposal to close county route 629.

Records were requested from the beginning of 2022 — but it took the Authority until July to seek support, well after it floated the road closure.

One e-mail, for example, asks Department of Homeland Security whether it knows “of any document that says roads should not be placed on high hazard dams in particular ones that are on the critical dam list?”

This request came weeks after the NJWSA asked Clinton Township and Lebanon Borough for formal resolutions of support to close the roadway.

E-mails to and from U.S. Homeland Security and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers appear, from these documents, to have been fruitless and embarrassing.

Water Authority documents and e-mails

Click “View doc” link after each summary to view the source document.

July 6
Route 629Shaffer (WSA) and Kale (DEP) debate whether internal docs “call out this road as a target” and speculate about whether “Justification for closing road could be tied to the “active and passive vehicle barrier guide””. These efforts to create justification for closing 629 are made weeks after WSA asks Clinton Township to support the proposal.

In the meantime, Mayor Brian Mullay keeps repeating that NJWSA instructed him to keep the justification for the closing “secret,” but that he finds “the reasons compelling.” This leads his council to vote unanimously on June 22 to go along. View doc

July 6-7
DEP’s John Kale asks Department of Homeland Security whether it knows “of any document that says roads should not be placed on high hazard dams in particular ones that are on the critical dam list?”

DHS responds “No, it is up to the owner/operator to determine what are acceptable risk to them and what protective measures if any they want to implement to protect their facilities. All of our documents are voluntary guidelines and best practices for suggested risk mitigation, protective measures, etc.”

In other words, despite the 2012 report, DHS will not comment on a specific site or road. Nonetheless, WSA claims on its website that the old DHS “report” is the basis for closing the road. View doc

July  8
WSA asks NJ DEP to support permanent closing of 629, “based on recommendations identified in a report prepared by US Department of Homeland Security and US Army Corp of Engineers in coordination with NJDEP Bureau of Dam Safety. The report analyzed various potential threats at all three Round Valley dams and offered recommendations to mitigate those threats.”

The referenced report was produced in 2012, 10 years before WSA asked towns for resolutions of support. Today’s announcement suggests report is out of date and insufficient. View doc

July 22
WSA e-mail response to earlier DHS e-mail: “the Water Supply Authority finds ourselves in a bit of a local uproar.”

WSA has “requested input from NJSP [NJ State Police] about whether “the report provides a legitimate basis for our request.”

These requests to justify closure of 629 come over a month after WSA told Clinton Township and Lebanon Borough that the action was necessary. View doc

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