Don’t like Exxon’s plans? Here’s what you can do

exxon's plansMayor Brian Mullay either doesn’t know what ExxonMobil is going to “present” to the public at the big September 27, 7 p.m. council meeting, or he’s withholding the information from the community.

It’s hard to say which is worse.

What’s clear is that he wants you to show up.

Some people are intimidated and feel awkward speaking up at public meetings. Like all council meetings, this one is governed by New Jersey’s Open Public Meetings Act. The OPMA (N.J.S.A. 10:4-12) guarantees you the right to speak during a defined public comment section. You are not required to answer questions from anyone on the dais when you speak. Just remember to be civil and polite.

The mayor said Exxon wants feedback on the future of the property. That is, what do you want on the property? Clinton Township already has land use ordinances that define what Exxon may and may not build on its property:

Warehouses and housing are not permitted.

Some of what is permitted: Business offices, medical offices, child care centers, nursing homes, hotels, laboratories, and data processing centers. Exxon is permitted to use its land accordingly.

It’s very likely Exxon wants to wheel and deal for something the zoning does not allow. Otherwise, it would just submit an application to the planning board.

Assuming you disagree with any non-permitted uses that Exxon proposes, it’s very easy to answer the question:

What do you want on the property?

If you’re going to go the meeting, you should speak and tell Exxon and the mayor and council what you want. You can tell them to stick to the rules:

“The citizens and officials of Clinton Township have invested a lot of time, money, thought and effort in defining our land use wishes in our land use ordinances. Our ordinances have a presumption of validity. They are proven to be legally defensible.

“So, Exxon, its managers, lawyers and planners already know what I want on the Exxon land. So do the mayor and council. I want no wheeling and dealing. I want what our zoning regulations permit on the Exxon property.

“I welcome Exxon to submit a development plan that is fully conforming to our zoning. That is what I want. And I fully expect my township officials not to grant any exceptions to any non-conforming application.”

Short version:

“I want ONLY what our zoning regulations permit on the Exxon property. Stick to the rules.”

If you are asked not to repeat what other members of the audience have already said, your response is also very easy:

“The Open Public Meetings Act guarantees me the right to say what I want no matter who else has already said it.”

Every person’s comment goes into the record. The more, the better, even if many are the same.

Your public comments matter.

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Exxon’s Big Mystery Meeting: Do you want warehouses or more affordable housing?

Let’s play a guessing game. What’s Exxon going to do at its big presentation next week?

Mayor Brian Mullay has been talking in secret with Exxon for a year and a half about development of its 800 acre property. A 4 million square foot warehouse was blown out of the water in October 2022 when the mayor was reminded it’s prohibited by Clinton Township’s zoning, and also by the Highlands Regional Master Plan.

exxons-mysteryExxon’s property is zoned for research, office and light manufacturing (ROM) and for various associated structures related to that. So Exxon can build something. Surely the mayor knows Exxon’s wishes — but he isn’t talking. It’s a secret.

What’s not a secret is that Exxon has also been talking with open space and farmland preservation funding sources connected to the State of New Jersey. Reportedly, the State has offered Exxon $10 million for all of the property that Exxon does not need for its operations — something like 700 acres that would be preserved as farmland and open space.

So, why is Exxon still proposing to develop 100 of those acres? Why doesn’t Exxon take the money and run? The State has reportedly put the $10 million on the table and is ready to deal. Exxon has reportedly stopped talking. Why?

One might guess simple corporate greed.

What’s Exxon going to propose next Wednesday?

It seems Exxon is trying to optimize its win. That is, to have its cake and eat it, too. It wants the $10 million and it wants to build.

On September 27 the mayor is sponsoring a big mystery meeting at the Clinton Township Middle School auditorium, where Exxon will supposedly disclose to the council and the public what it’s proposing. The question is, what?

Anyone familiar with the land development scene in this area of New Jersey knows there are two main development options that will produce the highest returns to a big landowner or developer:

  • Warehouses
  • Affordable housing

What do we know?

We know a few things.

  1. The kind of development Exxon is currently zoned for has long been dead in the real estate water. All one need do is drive along Routes 22 and 31. Vacant office, research and manufacturing space is going begging. (So is retail.)
  2. Warehousing is a hot market. Developers are suing towns to build more.
  3. In 2025, New Jersey will assign the 4th round of affordable housing obligations to all towns. Clinton Township’s obligation will likely be in the thousands of units. Developers are suing towns to build more.
  4. According to the mayor, the township has a “good relationship” with Fair Share  Housing Center — the private law firm masquerading as an affordable housing advocate. FSHC has been designated by the courts to sue hundreds of New Jersey towns and extort “settlement deals.” FSHC has been incredibly successful. FSHC is the source of all the massive new housing projects going up in Clinton Township.
  5. Clinton Township has donated — yes, donated — $45,000 to FSHC to cover legal costs the Center has incurred while suing the township. (Yes, you read that right.)

So it’s reasonable to speculate that Exxon wants to get approvals for warehousing or affordable housing. We’ll see if our guess is correct.

Is a squeeze play in the works already? isn’t going out on a limb to guess that Exxon will attempt a squeeze play on the township: Do you want warehouses, or do you want a huge housing development?

At the big meeting, Exxon may acknowledge it’s not zoned for warehouses, and propose building loads of affordable housing units on its property.

But as we’ve noted, Exxon’s zoning does not permit housing. This is where over a year of secret meetings with the mayor might pay off for Exxon. It’s not a stretch at all to guess that the mayor and council will “explain” to the community that, with Round 4 bearing down on the township, it sure would be smart to be ready in advance with a place to put massive numbers of affordable housing units.

And that’s how Exxon gets Clinton Township to change Exxon’s zoning for the single biggest housing project in 40 years — or perhaps ever. And Exxon is the hero.

How developers use the affordable housing trick

When a town negotiates an affordable housing settlement, it always involves rezoning for ultra-high density housing. While a new house in Clinton Township might require 8 acres, a FSHC settlement deal might require changing the zoning so that one acre will get 10, 15, 20 or more housing units.

Developers love this affordable housing trick. A town that would never let a builder put 20 houses on an acre will do it if it yields “needed” affordable housing.

This means Exxon’s “proposal” could be for 100 acres X 20 units — 2,000 units. The mayor and council have not been shy about justifying such densities in housing projects already underway. “We have no choice! If we don’t do this, the courts will force us to build even more units!”

Or, how about this poison?

If the township doesn’t want to swallow that threatened outcome, maybe a huge warehouse is not such a bad deal. While the Highlands Council would reject such a plan, Exxon can easily suggest the township change its zoning (as it does routinely) and simply withdraw from the Highlands Regional Master Plan — and the restriction against warehouses goes away. (“We had no choice! It was the better option!”)


Don’t want the warehouse? Exxon’s other proposal might be to sue Clinton Township under the Mount Laurel decision to force the development of 20 housing units per acre. Technically, only 20% would have to be “affordables.” The rest could be highly profitable market units. FSHC doesn’t care — especially if it’s working with Exxon to “help” Clinton Township “meet its new Round 4 obligation.”

Of course, if these are the “choices,” Clinton Township could just tell Exxon to go pound salt. The existing zoning allows Exxon to build research, office and light manufacturing facilities. The zoning is defensible.


exxons-big-mystery-meetingOf course, this is all speculation; an educated guess. Maybe Exxon will offer to plant banana trees or a nice community pool.

But when you consider that Mayor Mullay has been carrying water for Exxon a long time;  that Clinton Township has forgotten how to fight against forced affordable housing; that warehouses and affordable housing are the preferred ways for big landowners and developers to make money — you’ll see that Exxon’s solution may be to threaten the township and count on rezoning one way or the other.

Exxon can still collect $10 million for the rest of its land.

So, do you want warehouses, or more affordable housing?

It seems this mayor and council could justify either — then blame Exxon. They’d rather Exxon explain the choices, and you can offer your “comments and perspective” at this “listening session.”

Don’t like the outcome? Hey, they gave you a chance to provide your “comments and perspective.” And if things go south and Exxon threatens the township with a lawsuit, expect to hear the same old refrain: “We have no choice but to settle and let them build what they want.”

Or, maybe everything will just work itself out. That’s the mystery.

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Exxon: The mayor’s got a secret (again)

exxon secretEven after two humiliating blunders in 2022, Clinton Township Mayor Brian Mullay still doesn’t get it. His job is not catering to powerful special interests like ExxonMobil or state agencies. It’s protecting his town and the interests of his citizens and taxpayers. All he has to do is use existing township land use regulations to do it. Yet the mayor continues to be seduced by the intoxicating attention of special interests and developers that are always drooling at the township’s door for political favors.


The first humiliation was Mayor Mullay’s enthusiastic submission in 2022 to the New Jersey Water Supply Authority, which deputized him as the official bearer of bad news about the permanent closure of Route 629, a critical road corridor linking east and west sections of the township.

Water Supply Authority officials easily impressed Mullay by awarding him a hard hat and giving him a tour of the Round Valley Reservoir dam that Route 629 traverses. Then they conferred on him a fantastical “security clearance” that he brandished when he explained to the public that the “reasons” for the road closure had to do with “dam security issues” he could not discuss publicly. Only he knew what these secret reasons were and “they satisfied me.”

Meanwhile, thousands of township and neighboring residents worked tirelessly for months to get the facts Mullay failed to obtain for himself. The Authority claimed U.S. Homeland Security wanted the road closed. But internal Authority documents obtained by citizens under the sunshine law, and a visit to the Authority by Congressman Tom Malinowski, revealed the only “secret” was that it was all untrue. After months of public protest the gates erected across Route 629 quickly came down and the road was reopened. It’s hard to say who was humiliated more: Authority Executive Director Marc Brooks, or the mayor.

Secret plans, secret deals at the top

Second was Mullay’s naïve agreement last October to allow ExxonMobil to regale the public with its plans for a 4 million square foot warehouse — the third largest in North America. This episode not only humiliated the mayor; it revealed and highlighted his stunning ignorance of zoning regulations and his willingness to be driven by special interests right past his obligations as mayor.

The township’s zoning code specifically prohibits warehouses on Exxon’s property, yet Clinton Township’s top official had been meeting secretly with Exxon about its warehouse plans for eight months during 2022.

Clearly, Exxon’s crack team of lawyers, engineers and planners know the township’s zoning code — that’s why they didn’t bring a non-conforming warehouse application to the planning board. Better to do an end-run around the regulations and get the mayor, who apparently didn’t know or didn’t care about the zoning code, to sponsor  a huge council meeting at a local school auditorium so Exxon could put on its show for the public. Better to take a chance convincing the public to support a waiver to the regulations for Exxon than to try this before the planning board.

In an embarrassing turn of events, the New Jersey Highlands Council notified Mullay it had learned about the scheme, and warned him a warehouse at Exxon would never be permitted. Humiliated once again by his failure to protect the rights of his citizens while kowtowing to Exxon, Mullay shamelessly announced the “good news!” that was old news he’d never bothered to read — the township’s zoning code and the Highlands Regional Master Plan. Chalk up a win! After months of “talks,” the mayor would call Exxon and cancel their big presentation!

If at first you fail, try the mayor again

Does that story sound familiar? Keep in mind — it happened a year ago. It’s happening again.

One would think the mayor learned not to cede control of the township council’s official pulpit — a council meeting — to an external special interest, but Mullay has once again done just that.

Undaunted by public opinion and two striking humiliations, Mullay has continued to meet with Exxon about its development plans. And just last week the mayor announced that Exxon has once again asked him to set up a big venue where Exxon will make a “presentation” to the public about its development plans — rather than make an application to the planning board.

And, once again, the mayor’s got a secret. He has not only endorsed Exxon’s “presentation” — he has categorically refused to disclose to the council what he learned about it in months of secret discussions. He wants the council to enter the meeting without any agenda or details from Exxon. He told them to “think of some good questions” — because he “doesn’t know” what Exxon will talk about.

It’s easy to conclude that Exxon instructed the mayor to keep everything a secret.

Manipulating the public and the council

We don’t know what deals the mayor may have made with Exxon, but we do know he’s easily impressed by powerful people who need someone to advance their special interests against those of the township’s residents.

A basic rule of business is, Never agree to a meeting without first getting a written agenda. It’s also said one should never go into a gunfight with just a knife. Mayor Mullay isn’t even bringing a knife to this fight. In fact, he’s leading the council into this meeting with both hands tied behind their backs by refusing to give them an agenda and details of Exxon’s forthcoming dog and pony show.

On his Facebook page the mayor says:

“This is strictly an opportunity for ExxonMobil to hear our community’s perspective on this important issue.”

One council member has noted that without a written agenda in advance, without knowing exactly what the issue is before the meeting, there’s no way for the council or the community to provide their perspective. An agenda and a written proposal are a must. Without these, the mayor’s invitation to this mystery meeting is a manipulation of the council and the public.

The mayor and Exxon have a secret

Manipulating the public (not to mention the council) into attending a mystery presentation by Exxon is a diversion by Exxon. Exxon wants the meeting because its plans do not conform with the land use regulations that are designed to protect the township. The mayor should disclose that Exxon needs the township to change the rules to suit its plans. Of course, that’s what was behind Exxon’s planned presentation in 2022. The company knew it could never get the warehouse project past the planning board. Now, as then, Exxon knows that a pitch to the public in the guise of a “listening session” at least gives its plans a chance — before it has to sue to get what it wants. One wonders how much of this the mayor grasps.

To those residents who are led to believe it’s a good thing to “give feedback” and to “comment” on Exxon’s mystery plans at a “listening session,” remember we have a planning board that has the services of lawyers, planners and engineers who are far more expert than the public at dealing with the sleight of hand of lawyers, planners and engineers that are behind the forthcoming Exxon presentation.

The mayor’s got a secret. But keeping secrets from the public at the behest of the Water Supply Authority, or Exxon, is not good government. Keeping secrets from the council is not good leadership. Walking everyone into a surprise is a mistake. It’s yet another mistake sure to blow up in Mayor Mullay’s face yet again.

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Mayor plays Exxon’s errand boy – again

Clinton Township Mayor Brian Mullay is back at it, conducting private, undisclosed, highly questionable meetings with ExxonMobil about land development plans that belong at the planning board.

Exxon“Let’s put on a show!”

A stunning off-the-cuff announcement by the mayor at last night’s council meeting seemed to take the rest of the council by surprise. The mayor said he’s agreed to Exxon’s request to let the company make a major land development pitch to the community.

The matter was not on the public meeting agenda. The mayor did not disclose any details of Exxon’s plans. He just carried Exxon’s water to the council.

Exxon has been talking to Mullay about its development plans for about 100 acres of its 800-acre property. So Mullay is sponsoring a special council meeting at a school auditorium, where the company can pitch and market its development plans outside the protective auspices of the planning board.

Mullay posted on Facebook today that Exxon “would like to make a presentation to the community in order to receive feedback on the future of [about 100 acres of] the property surrounding their existing facility.”

Mayor Mullay compromises himself

The private land-use meetings the mayor has had with Exxon are so inappropriate that, if Exxon were to actually submit a development application to the planning board, Mullay would have to recuse himself from the matter because his prior discussions with the applicant would be deemed prejudicial. He could thereby relinquish any responsibility for the outcome.

This is not the first time the mayor has revealed his naivete and management inexperience — and it’s not the first time Exxon has embarrassed him by casting him as its errand boy. Mullay also met privately with Exxon in 2022, when Exxon wanted to build what would have been the third largest warehouse complex in North America, in excess of 4 million square feet. The mayor apparently didn’t know township zoning specifically prohibits warehouses on ExxonMobil’s property — while he met with Exxon from February through October 2022. That was the first time the mayor agreed to let Exxon address the public off-site in a big auditorium. Mullay didn’t find out about the warehouse prohibition until he was contacted by the New Jersey Highlands Council, which warned a warehouse would never be approved.

Amidst an enormous public furor last October, Mullay quickly withdrew his invitation to Exxon. Everyone assumed this embarrassing episode was over. But Exxon was not done with the mayor. He has admitted the back-room meetings continued.

Switlyk asks the most important question

Upon the mayor’s “announcement” at last night’s council meeting, Councilwoman Amy Switlyk asked the most important question: When would the council receive an information package prior to the big meeting?

Mullay responded that no such information would be provided. He told Switlyk that she could ask her questions at the meeting. But, asked Switlyk, how can Exxon not disclose to the council in advance what the plans are? How could she and the rest of the council ask intelligent questions without a preview of the presentation? The mayor had no answer.

The mayor has scheduled this dog-and-pony show for September 27 at 7:00 p.m. at the Clinton Township Middle School Auditorium.  The problem is that this is another attempt by Exxon to subvert the development application process. The proper venue for such a presentation is the planning board — where the public would have the benefit of a formal process that’s designed to protect the public’s interests.

Sucker for another sham “public input meeting”

Anyone that has ever attended Hunterdon County “public input” meetings about the county’s plans for growth and development knows how this political sleight of hand works. The Commissioners promote these casual gatherings ostensibly as an opportunity for county officials to learn what the public wants. The meetings are so informal that any resulting “public input” can be used by the Commissioners as cover for whatever they’re planning. “The public had a chance to provide their valuable input, which we’ve taken into consideration.” And guess what? That input — which no one can verify — always supports what the county wants to do anyway. “This is what the public wants!”

The mayor posted on Facebook today:

“ExxonMobil will be present at the next meeting of the Mayor and Council to discuss some of their thoughts on potential options for the property and to hear comments from the public to help them determine next steps.” will award a gallon of used Exxon motor oil to any Clinton Township resident who believes their “comments” will in any way “help” one of the biggest, most powerful fossil-fuel companies “determine next steps” for its development plans.

There’s a place for this: the planning board

The proper venue for Exxon’s development pitch is the Clinton Township Planning Board, where the board and its professionals know better than Mayor Mullay what’s prohibited and what’s not. The purpose of the planning board is to apply Clinton Township’s land-use regulations in a fair, objective way to protect the township from opportunistic marketing presentations.

Exxon wants to circumvent the planning and zoning board process in the hope it can cut a deal by being able to point to “public input” in support of its highly questionable development plans. (Remember the 4 million square foot warehouse?)

The public should absolutely turn out en masse to express its comments — under the protective cover of the planning board. A “presentation to the community” by a corporate heavy hitter like Exxon will not be a casual, friendly, honest event. You can bet Exxon will orchestrate every second, every word, every picture of its presentation to get what it wants. Nothing it says will be legally binding.

Mayor Mullay: You work for Clinton Township, remember?

Mayor Mullay should shake off the naive, gaga mantle of “It’s always good to hear what they have to say!” — and instruct Exxon to take its “presentation” to the zoning and planning boards, which offer the township the safeguards necessary to keep the community out of harm’s way.

Mayor Mullay has once again embarrassed himself and reveals he’s not qualified to lead or manage Clinton Township. He’s a shoe-in, unopposed candidate for another term as mayor — and the community needs to look long and hard at how easy it is for special interests to manipulate his use of his powers. (The mayor’s poor judgment and inability to act first on behalf of the township was on display during the Route 629 debacle last year.)

Three things reveal that Exxon is disingenuous and attempting to manipulate the township:

  1. After its warehouse debacle, it continued to conduct back-room meetings with the mayor. Will it get its way this time?
  2. Exxon has not already provided a detailed copy of its presentation to the council. What are they hiding?
  3. More important, Exxon is once again cultivating the mayor to avoid the proper venue — the planning board. Why is that?

No more surprises: Follow the rules

Maybe Mullay knows what Exxon is going to spring on the public if it gets to put on its “show.” He’s not saying. Maybe the mayor is content with a surprise presentation. The council should not be.

Everyone should heed — and echo to the mayor — Councilwoman Amy Switlyk’s request: Give us a complete, written preview of the Exxon presentation before any meeting. It’s what Exxon would be required to do at the planning board.

Everyone should want to attend a public meeting about such a huge development proposal, but it should be in the venue that offers the community the most protections — the planning board — not on a stage for a dog and pony show where there are no guardrails.

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Clinton Township: Forged signature on affordable housing?

affordable housingOne of Clinton Township’s several new affordable housing developments was due to start construction any day, on Route 31 North across the highway from Spruce Run Reservoir. An “inclusionary” project, it would include affordable units among regular “market” units to ensure it would be profitable for the builder.

It would take what might be a forged signature to make it happen. But first, let’s discuss what you need to know about Clinton Township’s methods of managing affordable housing projects.

Affordable housing roulette

According to a court filing by the township, the affordable housing developer, Ingerman, recently “indicated its desire to change the 146-unit inclusionary development” after the original plan received approval from the Clinton Township Planning Board.

The township has modified its affordable housing plans over the past few years so many times that it looks like a game of land-use roulette. New sites substituted for old sites. Numbers of units are altered. Developers are switched in and out. Work is duplicated and costs mount every time .

Every time changes are made, it seems the mayor and council try to hide the KA-CHING! sound that taxpayers might hear — by scheduling “special meetings” no one is likely to attend.

Never mind the scads of taxpayer dollars spent down the drain for the last affordable housing plan, the one before that, and the one before that. These plans require hours and hours of pricey time and work of lawyers, engineers, planners and other sundry “professionals” who love to make a good living.

No one has explained why Ingerman “desired” to eliminate all the profitable market units from the plan and to reduce the entire size of the project from 146 units to just 96. Sounds great, but what developer willingly shrinks an approved housing development because it’s good for the township?

What developer suddenly eliminates 66 highly profitable market units out of the goodness of its heart? Imagine the developer telling the township it has to rush a new ordinance so the developer can make less profit.

But that’s exactly what Ingerman did — and Mayor Brian Mullay and the council quickly scheduled a “special meeting” of the council at 1:00 p.m. June 27, 2023 to approve Ingerman’s changes by introducing an ordinance. The public will be allowed to comment on the ordinance at its second reading, when the council will also vote on approving it, on August 9.

But it’s not hard to imagine this mayor and council putting external interests ahead of their own constituents — and trying to keep it all quiet. They’ve scheduled quickie public meetings at odd hours before (e.g., May 6, 2021), whenever there’s an “affordable housing plan rush” to spend more taxpayer money on lawyers, planners and engineers.

While some of the township’s best, most senior employees say they have resigned citing poor office morale, poor management and uncompetitive salaries, the township’s budget for affordable housing work — legal, planning, engineers — seems as limitless as the council’s willingness to keep taxpayers in the dark.

Why a special meeting?

The day before the special meeting Township Administrator William Close explained in an e-mail that:

“Both the Township and the developer are under time constraints that require the revisions to be adopted by the end of August at the latest. The Council only meets once in August (August 9), so it is critical that the ordinance be introduced in time to hold the public hearing at the August 9 meeting.”

No explanation has been offered about why the revisions are being made — only that it’s critical and a rush.

Who’s driving the bus?

But this explanation has been thrown at the public again and again over the years. There’s always a rush that requires a special meeting at an odd time. An alternative explanation is obvious: Someone is not doing their job to properly manage what is probably the township’s #1 time and money suck: affordable housing plans.

Could this be because no one is driving this bus? William Close has been the township’s “contract administrator” — he’s not an employee; a consulting firm is renting him to the township — since June 2022, working part-time, three days a week, often from home, under a contract that council has renewed quarterly again and again.

If the mayor is the township’s CEO, then the administrator is the COO, responsible for day-to-day management and oversight of all departments and project. It seems affordable housing always winds up in crisis mode, and the township relies on “interim” temporary management that’s dropping stitches. (The township has had multiple interim administrators recently.) But who’s driving the bus?

The legal notice for the meeting

Such special meetings nonetheless require a legal notice, and the township issued one. It is the township Clerk that routinely prepares, signs and posts such notices.

The legal notice of the special July 27 meeting bares a conformed signature (also known as an electronic signature) of Carla Conner, the township Clerk:

However, Conner says she did not prepare the notice or sign it, digitally or otherwise. Nor, she says, did she authorize anyone else to sign her name. In fact, she says, she told the mayor she was never informed of the July 27 meeting and that in her opinion “the signature is a fraud.” She says she is very upset.

The question is, has Conner’s signature been inappropriately affixed to other township documents?

“We’ll take 8 hours a week”

Over two months ago, in early May, after 14 years’ employment with the township, Carla Conner resigned from her Clerk’s job for a better-paying position in Flemington Borough. She gave the township three weeks’ notice and offered to help transition a new hire into the job. Her last day was May 31. According to Conner, Clinton Township made no attempt to counter Flemington’s offer.

Nor, to her knowledge, was the township doing anything to fill the Clerk’s job. In New Jersey, the Clerk is a statutory position that requires a state license. That is, every town must have a Clerk to perform tasks not permitted to anyone else.

Conner started out as assistant to Clerk Donna Burham. Knowing Burham was going to retire in a few years, then-Administrator Marvin Joss and the Clerk formulated a succession plan — a career path for Conner. She received training from Burham, took classes and was fully prepared to take over as Clerk when Burham retired. Nothing of the kind was planned to replace Conner.

On June 12, Conner started her new job in Flemington. Meanwhile, the township had asked her as favor to work per diem eight hours per week for $35 an hour without benefits while it searched for a full-time clerk. Conner says she agreed, but only if she could do just limited tasks and only in the evenings. And only for a very short time. She would handle marriages, OPRA requests and sundry tasks, but she would not attend council meetings or handle meeting minutes. She says she expected to do this for just a few weeks. The council passed a resolution to make the hire on June 28.

Vacant jobs = $$avings

All towns advertise vacant Clerk jobs on the N.J. League of Municipalities’ job board. Clinton Township posted its vacant Clerk position on July 6, 2023 — almost two months after Conner gave notice. That’s over a month after her last day, and a week after it re-hired Conner per diem.

Hiring a new Clerk is the Administrator’s job, but it seems clear no one was really doing much, if anything, about it.

The township seems to have developed an interesting view of vacant jobs. When employees quit, “We’re saving money by not filling the job, or by hiring part-time contractors.” Or money is saved when a newly vacant job is “filled” by throwing a few thousand extra dollars at an existing employee to do work they don’t really have time (or skills or motivation) to perform adequately.

Is it any wonder employee morale has tanked? Where a department had two or three workers, some are down to one. There is no career path. Workloads become unbearable and the remaining employees work without management support.

It’s worth noting the Administrator of the past 12 months is a part-time, 3-days-a week contractor whose job was supposed to be temporary. Clinton Township, as one of the biggest, busiest towns in Hunterdon County, has always had a full-time Administrator, until the Higgins and Mullay administrations. Is it any wonder employee morale has bottomed out?

Is it “legit” or fraud?

When Conner complained to Mayor Mullay about using her signature without her knowledge or permission, he answered that he would consult township attorney Trishka Waterbury-Cecil. Conner says the mayor then conveyed the attorney’s response that because Conner’s name is preceded with /s/, “it’s legit.”

Adobe Systems is perhaps the leading purveyor of digitized documents, including electronic, or conformed, signature technology. On its website Adobe offers this advice to users (emphasis added):

What is an s-signature?
In the case of conformed signatures, which are another type of s-signature, the signer puts an “s” between two forward slash marks in front of their typed name (for example, /s/ Jimmy Doe). In fact, the s-signature name took its name from the conformed signature style.

Remember, the signature must be between forward slashes to make it valid. You must add an s-signature for yourself. Another party cannot add it.

We’re not lawyers

We’re not lawyers, so we consulted several respected legal websites, because the township’s behavior doesn’t add up. says this about signing someone else’s name (emphasis added):

When does this become illegal?
Under US law, falsifying a document is a crime. Forgery laws vary by state, but generally, signing a document as someone else without that person’s permission falls under this category as forgery. If the other person is unaware that you’re signing something for them and you’re gaining something, then you’re committing forgery. This is based on having the ‘intention to defraud’ someone. This applies even if you thought you had permission to sign something. It’s important to always have the permission of the person who you are signing on behalf of.

A word about ethics, integrity and common decency

When Carla Conner expressed dismay that her signature as a licensed New Jersey Clerk was used without her knowledge or permission, no one seemed to think it was a big deal. “It’s legit” was the last she heard, from the town attorney through the mayor.

Perhaps in some distant galaxy or legal world we mortals don’t understand, it’s all  legal. Perhaps Conner’s sincere professional and personal concerns don’t deserve another thought.

But, perhaps the way those concerns were handled, along with uncompetitive pay,  explains a lot about the low morale and employee attrition. Perhaps the loss of good employees and inept hiring and management practices explain quickie council meetings to address huge affordable housing projects that can cost taxpayers untold millions if they’re not managed skillfully and diligently.

Your chance to govern with questions

There is no transparency in government if people don’t ask questions.

If you don’t understand why Clinton Township is so easily letting a private developer drive changes to a massive “affordable housing” project, perhaps you’ll take the time to find out how your mayor and council and their administrator are running things.

You can show up on August 9, 7:00 p.m. at the regularly scheduled council meeting and ask why this project’s design is being changed — and why the township can’t keep its employees.

Public Safety Building
1370 Route 31 North – 3rd floor
Annandale, NJ 08801

Taxpayers can demand answers

You have a right to go to the microphone during the public hearing part of the meeting to ask:

  • why the plan has really been changed
  • how the changes might adversely affect the township
  • how much money the changes might cost the township
  • what the benefits might be to Ingerman, the developer
  • what municipal funds may need to be expended to support the project

According to agreements the township has already signed, you could ask what costs taxpayers could be on the hook for:

  • development costs Ingerman does not cover
  • federal subsidies Ingerman cannot obtain
  • a pedestrian crossing over Routh 31 North
  • water and sewer capacity for the development

Because the township has already agreed to forego property taxes on these units for 30 years, you might want to ask for the truth about the PILOT deal they signed (Payments in Lieu of Taxes) which cuts the schools out of tax revenues they would normally get for new students from the new development. You can ask for a pro forma that reveals how much your school taxes could go up as a result of the PILOT deal.

And that’s just the public hearing about changes to the affordable housing plan.


During the “regular” public comment period, you also have the right to ask the mayor and council:

  • why they’re paying exorbitant sums for a temporary, part-time Administrator for over a year
  • where their HELP WANTED signs are to replace the critical employees whose jobs they won’t fill
  • why they’ve allowed employee morale to slip to a new low
  • who is really running the township and driving critical decisions

It really is up to you

Or you could stay home and just complain your taxes keep going up, that you don’t get the municipal services you need, and that Clinton Township is going to hell in a handbasket. You could sit back and let the same people get re-elected automatically to those powerful council seats year after year after year because they run unopposed in every election.

You could also ask who signed former Clerk Carla Conner’s name to a legal notice without her knowledge or permission.

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Posted in Affordable Housing, Municipal | Comments Off on Clinton Township: Forged signature on affordable housing?

Hunterdon Commissioners scam the public with sham public hearing

sham public hearingWhat if the Hunterdon County Commissioners scheduled a public hearing but didn’t show up? What if Susan Soloway, Zach Rich, Shaun Van Doren and John Lanza were all M.I.A.? What if they sent just one commissioner and four stooges?

There’s a term for that kind of disrespect of government for constituents and we’ll share it later.

It was supposed to be the second of two legally required public hearings about the Hunterdon County Commissioners’ plans to sell the $5 million Solid Waste Transfer Station located in Clinton Township, a.k.a. the county dump. (Meeting calendar is here.)

A scam meeting notice

But the commissioners couldn’t be bothered to show up.

The first public hearing on the matter was held at the June 6, 2023 commissioner’s meeting. The commissioners were present to hear the public’s comments at that meeting.

The commissioners placed their routine legal public notice for the 5:30pm June 27 meeting in the same place on their website where they post all commissioner meetings. Around 40 citizens showed up, only to find a group of people sitting at the dais without the normal name plates. Only one was a commissioner, Jeff Kuhl. He sat at the center seat where the chair of the meeting sits — only he didn’t run the meeting.

In fact, Kuhl never said a word.

They’ll put it on their playlist

After a quick introduction of those on the dais (too quick to jot down), a woman to Kuhl’s left conducted the meeting. An audience member asked where the commissioners were. How would they participate in the discussion with the public about the disposition of a $5 million public asset?

How could they hear the public?

“They are not here. They will listen to the recording later to hear your public comments.”

We don’t do questions

She warned that those on the dais would not answer any questions. Pressed about this from an audience member, she repeated, “We will not answer any questions.”

The first speaker, long-time county resident and retired Editor-in-Chief of the Hunterdon Democrat, Curtis Leeds held up a report about the dump sale obtained from the county under the Sunshine Law. He asked who the author was because none was listed.

We don’t identify authors of reports

The leader of the meeting moved her chair back to confer privately with another person on the dais. Then she said they would not identify the author.

It was advertised as a public meeting of the commissioners to hear public comments — but who was doing the hearing (or listening)? One commissioner and four stooges.

A sneaky trick of politicians

Why should you care about any of this? The commissioners know your “public comments” at two legally mandated public hearings don’t really matter.

The commissioners know they don’t have to listen to a word you say.

All they have to do is hold two sham “hearings” where they hear nothing. 90 days after that second hearing they can do anything they want with that $5 million county dump and taxpayers will know nothing until the deal is done.

Oops! It’s a sham!

Hunterdon Commissioners always show up for a photo op

Dear reader, if you find the word “stooges” rude and inappropriate, bear in mind that 40 busy taxpayers showed up before the end of their workday to be heard by their elected commissioners — after a scam announcement of a meeting of the commissioners was advertised on the county website.

But the commissioners’ meeting was a sham. There was not a legal quorum of commissioners present.

Rude and inappropriate doesn’t begin to describe the behavior of the commissioners who who were absent — and the one present who didn’t participate.

“Circle jerk” best describes what those on the dais did late yesterday afternoon. But no harm done by this characterization — because their places on a dais had no nameplates to identify them. So who’s to be offended except citizens who were required to identify themselves before they spoke?

News Flash: Commissioners don’t need constituents

Speaker after speaker expressed irritation that the elected officials who scheduled the public hearing were not present to hear the public’s comments about the sale of a $5 million public asset.

The woman on the dais  invited people to submit questions to the clerk of the commissioner board. However, she said such questions might not be answered.

Bad business

It must be noted that at least two facts were raised by the public that strongly suggest:

A sale of the dump would violate New Jersey statutes, and

The “valuation” of the dump was made without “any financial or operating information or expense data from the current contract operators.” This despite a contractual obligation that the operator “will provide to the County each year an independent certified audit of its operations.”

So, on what are the commissioners basing their decision?

How county government works

What happens when elected officials scam their constituents into attending a public hearing without elected officials?

What happens when elected officials hang government employees out to dry all by themselves in front of constituents?

county commissionersThis “government in action” is known by an affectionate term here in New Jersey.

What happens when the commissioners deliver to constituents:

  • A scam “public notice” of a commissioner meeting.
  • A sham of a public hearing: The commissioners were MIA at their own public hearing.
  • Government employees doing the work of elected officials.
  • “We don’t answer questions.”
  • An unattributed report that was written by requirement of New Jersey law: “But we won’t tell you who wrote the advisory report recommending sale of the dump.”
  • No clear explanation about when the commissioners might take action to sell a $5 million public asset. The best “the woman” offered was that “You should look for a bid — you’ll know they’ve taken action when they issue a bid.” [Paraphrased, but we don’t know who said it, so what’s the harm?]

An audience member noted after the meeting that the only way to have good government is to “Vote the bums out!” Another replied that the only commissioner running for re-election this year, Shaun Van Doren, was a no-show. “Van Doren didn’t show up, but he’ll ask me to show up on election day to vote for him, do ya think?”

Van Doren’s only opponent in November is Dan Connor. Connor showed up and took notes on the public’s comments.

We cannot print the words of some attendees after the “event.” Our sensibilities would be compromised.

We’ll be obtaining the county’s official recording shortly. Stay tuned.

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What the county hasn’t told you about sale of $5M county dump

county dumpSomething doesn’t add up. The Hunterdon County Commissioners want to sell the county dump — the Solid Waste Transfer Station on Petticoat Lane near Route 22 in Clinton Township — which has operated for over 30 years. (See Commissioners try to sell county dump: A garbage story.)

The dump is for municipal waste, and it’s where residents can dispose of solid waste including rubbish and recyclable materials. The dump gets heavy use. On weekends, residents and commercial users (e.g., building contractors) stack up along Petticoat Lane long before opening time. Users pay “tipping fees” to dump — also known as “revenue.”

For many years the dump was operated by a separate county body, the Hunterdon County Utilities Authority. In 2012 the freeholders dissolved the authority and took direct control of the dump. Local governments sometimes take over an independent authority — water, sewer, etc. — as a way to get their hands on revenue flows.

The dump generates $4,860,000 in annual revenue, according to the Proforma Operating Statement provided by Waste Management of NJ, Inc, which has been operating the dump under contract.

Questions about the dump sale based on statements made by county officials

What we learned about the dump deal (that the county hasn’t told us)

It’s in documents obtained under the Sunshine Law, including the December 4, 2018 contract between the county and Waste Management of New Jersey, Inc. The commissioners have not publicly disclosed any of these facts.

  • Waste Management, operator of the dump, reports estimated annual profits of $75,500 on $4,860,000 in revenues
  • All operating costs are included in the contract and borne by WM.
  • WM will pay monthly operating privilege fee to county of $1,666.67 in addition to $2.00/ton per month
  • Estimated tons per day: 198.66
  • Tipping fee for users: $81/ton
  • If fees paid do not cover county’s operating costs, county may increase rates paid by WMI
  • WM will pay $2.00/ton to county for recyclable materials
  • WMI will pay $1.40/ton quarterly to Clinton Township, the host community

Pop Quiz for commissioners: Explain why the dump is not a financial win for the county. Show all your work.

Recently the commissioners announced they’re going to sell the Transfer Station. The reasons they’ve provided just don’t add up. They’re skimpy and evasive at best. These statements appeared in the Hunterdon Review (5/1/23) and TapInto Flemington/Raritan (4/27/23).

It’s time to find a private company to operate the facility.


The site is also in need of renovations, County Administrator Myhre said.

What renovations and how much would they cost? Every operation is a revenue and cost equation. Myhre offers no evidence that a sound cost analysis has been done — or he’s not telling.

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

For what? Myhre implies selling the dump would save $194,320, but also claims the only county employee assigned to the dump would be “reassigned,” not terminated, so there’s no savings.

County Administrator Myhre noted the process to arrive at a point where the transfer station could be sold has surpassed a decade.

This is nothing short of embarrassing. What was the process? Myhre has provided no information about any “process” or about how the commissioners came to the conclusion to divest taxpayers of a public asset.

“It has been the desire of this board as Hunterdon County would like to get out of the business altogether of operating that transfer station. Ultimately we believe it is in the best interest of the county,” Myhre said.

Myhre has offered no facts, data, financial analysis or other justifications for what the commissioners “believe,” or why “it is in the best interest of the county.”

Commissioner Director Zachary Rich said, “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.”

Where are the results of the years-long examination? Who conducted it? Where’s the report? Where are the recommendations so taxpayers can see them? Why “should [the dump] be a private business?” Astonishingly, Rich admits to running Hunterdon County as a “governmental bureaucracy.

“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.”

In making the decision to sell, the commissioners must have calculated the costs of improvements, or how could they judge whether it would be worth the investment for the county? What are those costs? How does selling the dump relieve taxpayers of the costs of improvements? Wouldn’t the commercial buyer just pass the costs on to taxpayers that use the dump, since it would presumably be a profit-making business? To justify shifting the costs to the buyer, the commissioners need to provide a defensible estimate of what it would cost taxpayers to use the dump.

More questions taxpayers deserve answers to before the commissioners vote to sell county dump

  • What’s the detailed breakdown of the $194,320 in “the annual operating budget”?
  • How much in revenue, fees and other payments did Waste Management deliver to the county last year?
  • The Hunterdon Review (6/14/23) reports that former County Administrator Kevin Davis, the only speaker during public comment, said at the June 6 public hearing that “not all county residents see the benefits of the dump.” Where’s the survey or study that supports this claim?
  • How many people, businesses and municipalities use the dump?
  • What are Waste Management’s monthly and annual revenues from dump operations?
  • Did WM really make only $75,500 in annual profit on $4.86M in revenues per the proforma they provide in their contract?
  • What’s the detailed explanation for why dump isn’t making money for the county?
  • Did the county produce a report that justifies the sale?

Are public questions really welcome?

State law requires the commissioners to hold two public hearings and to wait 90 days after the second hearing to take action on selling the dump. The public has the right to offer comments and ask questions at these hearings.

However, a recent news report raised questions about whether the county would in fact answer questions from the public:

[The county’s] special counsel on the Transfer Station sale process, David Weinstein, a partner in law firm Archer & Greiner P.C. provided information about the hearing. “If people wish to provide questions they can I do so to either the County Counsel or County Administrator so they can (1) be answered and (2) the board can be aware of what those questions are. People can ask questions tonight and though the board is under no obligation to answer and address those questions, you can provide answers just as any questions posed here at a public meeting can be answered.” -Hunterdon Review, 6/14/23

Neither the special counsel’s nor the Administrator’s e-mail addresses seem to be published on the county website.

Submit your questions

Readers should feel free to select any questions posed in this article — and send them to the County Administrator or to the special counsel, as the special counsel instructs — except there’s no e-mail address for either on the county website. But you could e-mail to the commissioners themselves: To make your submission official, preface it with this statement:

“Please accept these questions on the matter of the sale of the county dump. I look forward to your answers prior to the commissioners’ vote on the sale on June 27, otherwise I will not be fully informed to make comments at that meeting. Thank you.” [Be sure to include your name, e-mail and/or street address after listing your questions.]

To keep the commissioners honest, please cc to

Final public hearing prior to vote by commissioners to sell county dump

The second public hearing is set to occur at 5:30 p.m. on Tuesday, June 27, inside the Clinton Township Public Safety Building at 1370 State Route 31 North in the Annandale section of Clinton Township.

Long-time Commissioner Shaun Van Doren, the only commissioner up for reelection in November, apparently had nothing to say and is on board with selling the dump without further justification to taxpayers.
Only one person spoke at the first public hearing on June 6, former County Administrator Kevin Davis, a resident of Raritan Township. He “explained” the deal in virtually the exact superficial terms the commissioners did, and added that not all county residents see the benefits of the dump. He was complimented for “a great explanation” by Deputy Director Jeff Kuhl.

Shame on the Hunterdon County Commissioners and Administrator for not taking it upon themselves to fully disclose details of the dump’s operations, including the financials, prior to making a decision. Taxpayers deserve to know more than “we believe it’s time to sell it!”

Taxpayers deserve a clear, honest, independent, compelling report that justifies — without question — the sale of a significant public asset with revenues close to $5 million. Otherwise, will this smell like a backroom deal to taxpayers?

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“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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Posted in Affordable Housing, Highlands Council | 2 Comments

“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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