EGG HARBOR TOWNSHIP – Despite the concerns of nearly 300 residents and some business owners, Township Committee Wednesday, March 15 approved the rezoning needed for an affordable-housing rental project to proceed on the Black Horse Pike – but withheld approval of two supplementary measures.

Three related zoning ordinances were needed to be approved for Eastern Pacific Development to move ahead with its plans for Cross Creek at Egg Harbor, an affordable housing project that involves the construction of 58 townhouses and the renovation of the Rodeway Inn at 6641 E. Black Horse Pike into 27 apartments.

After hearing from residents who opposed the project for a variety of reasons, the committee voted 3-2 on the first and primary zoning ordinance, a vote that authorized the developer to move ahead with its plans.

A pair of secondary, more specific zoning change ordinances failed by a unanimous lack of support. They were supplementary measures that are also required for the developer to move ahead with submitting the site plans to the Planning Board.

While neither township officials nor the developer’s attorney, Louis Magazzu, were able to provide concrete answers on what the conflicted voting means for the project, each stated separately after the meeting that the plans could still move ahead once the developer confers with the judge who oversees affordable housing.

A judge instructed the township to work with the developer at a meeting last summer, according to information provided by Mayor James “Sonny” McCullough Thursday, March 16. McCullough said he assumed the developer would appeal the matter to the judge, who would instruct the township to remove any zoning obstacles.

He maintained that while mostly symbolic, the lack of support for the secondary ordinances was not done in vain.

“I’m sick and tired of getting these pushed down our throats,” McCullough said. “Not a person up here is in favor of these ordinances.”

Ongoing conflict

The public hearing and vote on the Cross Creek project once again brought to light simmering issues between Egg Harbor Township and the state.

When New Jersey enacted the Fair Housing Act in 1985, each town in New Jersey was assigned a “fair share” number of units it had to accept to satisfy affordable housing obligation as outlined by the Council on Affordable Housing, the agency which facilitates the administration of the legislation.

Egg Harbor Township was assigned a total of 763 in the first two “rounds” of compliance, which it had to satisfy by 2004. Another requirement was set in the third round for the years between 2004 and 2016, but the figures have been tied up in the court system for years.

Township administrator Peter Miller has said that while he is hoping the township will only be obligated to accept 1,000 more units in the third round, COAH sees the number as closer to 2,200 more units.

“By law we must approve zoning to allow for these projects," Miller said. "We are required to work with developers, so the township tries to find sites with least impact.”

For at least the past decade, the township has been involved in litigation with the state over its COAH obligations. Officials have been told that if they fail to work with developers to satisfy the affordable housing requirement, the court could force the township to build the units with taxpayer money or allow the state to chose the sites.

Committeeman Joe Cafero blamed the affordable housing challenges on a “left-leaning” liberal judiciary branch.

According to Township Solicitor Marc Friedman, the courts have broad powers to mandate such matters, and working with the developers ensures that private money would be used for construction.

“That’s a good thing because court has power to push the financial burden on the township to construct the housing,” he said.

At the heart of the township's irritation is that for decades, it has objected to the way its affordable housing obligation was set. If the state were to count the existing Section 8-subsidized housing, apartments and mobile home parks in the township, its affordable housing goal would be met with ease.

“If they would count those, we would likely be in compliance today,” said Committeewoman Laura Pfrommer.

Pinelands vs. CAFRA

While the debate is nothing new for the longer-serving members of the committee, the committee sat through about an hour of public comment from residents opposed to the placement of the Cross Creek project near their homes, with some saying they are beginning to feel they are being unfairly targeted as a spot to absorb such projects.

In 2013, the residents who live along this stretch of West Jersey Avenue near the Shore Mall organized a groundswell of opposition for multifamily affordable housing project in the Pinecrest neighborhood, a development of single-family homes.

About 2,000 residents signed a petition against the project, which called for a four-story building of rental units that would have been marketed to veterans, but not exclusively. The residents succeeded in getting  the Township Committee to refuse to hold a vote on the related ordinance, and the developer withdrew the application and found an alternative site by renovating the Clarion Hotel on the Black Horse Pike.

This time around, many of the same residents voiced concern that the Cross Creek project would exacerbate traffic problems at Foster and Cottonwood avenues and pull down property values in an already distressed real estate market.

Amy Vanrell, who was selected to speak on behalf of the majority of the residents of the section, said there are other locations that offer more to developers.

She said the neighbors also feel the project is being “squeezed in” simply because the hotel is not doing much business.

“We are not opposed to affordable housing – just not in this location,” Vanrell said.

The residents were joined in their opposition by the proprietors of a few nearby businesses, including the owner of the $20 million Mercedes Benz dealership recently built on Black Horse Pike.

Chief Operating Officer Chris Magarity said the nature of the area is not conducive to affordable housing and suggested that the dealership’s former site in the West Atlantic City section would be more appropriate.

“We are heavily invested in this neighborhood. This is not the highest and best use of this property,” Magarity said. “We feel strongly what we offer does, as well as the large medical office and other retail stuff coming up does. It’s the reason we moved from where we were to here. I think there are better places.”

McCullough said the reason that section of the township has seen more applications is its inclusion in the Pinelands Regional Growth Zone, which authorizes development in some portions of the state as a way to preserve the natural setting of others. Half the township is governed by the Coastal Area Facilities Review Act, which restricts density and discourages development.

The mayor said the legislation here is also unfair to the township.

“The state is the enemy of Egg Harbor Township. Look what they have done to our property taxes and to the school system through lack of funding. What the schools are going through is beyond what we are going through. It’s horrible.”

McCullough said the only way to affect change is for residents to stand up and demand it, he said.

“Talk to your state legislators and tell them you want the laws changed. They don’t want to hear from us. They just view us as another politician passing the buck. They listen to the average taxpayer,” he said.

In the meantime, projects like Cross Creek and others in the pipeline are likely to move ahead despite local opposition.

Magazzu said that while he understands the pressure placed on the township, he feels the project is a compromise.

“I’ve heard what you’ve said, and by reading newspapers for the last 25 years, I know what’s come down on this community,” he said.

“All I can say is that what we presented to you is the best possible situation for a bad situation. We brought you a developer that other mayors have said is responsible and has a record of bringing quality. I get that’s it’s a tough situation,” Magazzu continued.

McCullough said residents who are concerned will have an opportunity to speak again if and when the matter reaches the Planning Board.

Email Laura Stetser at laura.stetser@catamaranmedia.com or call 609-601-5194. Connect with her on social media @EHTCurrent or @LauraStetser or @TheMomsBeat. ​

Staff writer Laura Stetser covers Egg Harbor Township and writes the weekly column The Mom's Beat. Follow her on Facebook and Twitter @EHTCurrent, @LauraStetser and @TheMomsBeat.