Yeah, it’s a Cranford blog, and it is time I got off my “Corzine is a complete idiot” theme, despite the richness of that fodder.

Assuming it was Greg Marx who wrote the Chronicle’s editorial, I agree with some of it and disagree with parts. I think Greg is a decent enough guy – having only spoken with him briefly in pre-pundit days, but I think he was a little bit all over the map with his critique.

The case of Lehigh Acquisition Corp. vs. Township of Cranford is just getting underway, and the outcome is still to be determined. But even at this early point in the proceedings, one thing is clear: the people of Cranford have already lost.

The lawsuit, a “builder’s remedy” claim filed by Lehigh after its negotiations with the township over the design and density of an age-restricted development at 555 South Ave. East broke down, argues that the township has failed to meet its state-imposed obligation to provide affordable housing. The merits of that claim will now be hashed out by attorneys for both sides and by the courts, likely at great length and great expense.

That may be true. The developer obviously is looking to use the fear of litigation to get the township to bend to its demands – the cost of defense is a factor. However, this is merely the tactic they chose. If Cranford shot them down and was compliant with the COAH certification, they could have had other methods to try and get the TC to bend. 

Township officials have said they will defend the case, and they may even prevail. But Cranford should never have been in this position. At numerous times since 2000, Cranford had an opportunity to demonstrate to the state that it had a plan to provide affordable housing — and by securing “substantive certification” for its plan from the state Council on Affordable Housing (COAH), Cranford could have obtained immunity from a builder’s remedy suit. But at every point, through a combination of neglect, indifference, stubbornness and short-sightedness — and, perhaps, a fear of the people who would live in those “affordable” residences — the township failed to follow through. Now, Cranford will be stuck with a sizable legal bill and, if it does not prevail, a new housing complex that it does not want.

Blame for this failure is widespread. Many different people have sat on the Township Committee over the last eight years, and both political parties have held control. It is impossible to locate the crucial point at which things went wrong, simply because there were so many missed opportunities. But a few events in particular highlight a pattern of repeated sins of omission.

If placing blame, it should be spread around. Especially if this goes back as far as Greg says. Shouldn’t we include the former town attorney Robert Renaud in too since he could have advised the TC that this was worth doing? I think Marx is off the mark for the allegation of the TC fearing those who would live in affordable housing units…I don’t think anyone on the TC for the past seven years would come out against them – it is, I think, (and as he correctly points out later), probably fear of the NIMBY crowd who will practically stop at nothing in shouting down change of any kind and making life for the TC pretty miserable.

My take on the whole situation is a little different from Greg’s. I don’t like the fact that placating a state bureaucracy that can take three years to respond to an application, and never notify you of any change in status, should make you lose immunity to suits. Especially if the subcommittee was in fact working on it. If “time was of the essence” then maybe, but if there was intent by the township to complete the application, then I think that the application should still be in a pending status. Am I the only one struck by the silliness of all of this? (The whole Mount Laurel decision and the affordable housing argument has its problems, as almost any “legislation from the bench” does – but that is best left for another post.)

In 2000, the township filed an affordable housing plan with COAH, seeking substantive certification. That plan was deemed incomplete, and in 2003 — no one ever said the state moved quickly — the township received a letter from COAH, saying that the application was still pending and asking for more information. The township’s erstwhile planner responded, saying that the information would be forthcoming. It wasn’t.

In 2005, the committee took up the issue again, with one commissioner in particular, Ann Darby, pushing for compliance with the state’s rules. In four conversations over the course of the year, Darby’s points gained some ground, but by the end of the year the only consensus that had been reached was to ask a subcommittee to work on the topic. No one ever said subcommittees moved quickly either, and by the time Lehigh’s lawsuit was filed, the township’s housing plan was still months away from completion.

The astounding thing is that, even after the township didn’t respond to COAH’s inquiries in 2003, the application for certification remained active — but, apparently, no one in Cranford knew it. The application did not expire until December 2005, according to the state. But minutes of Cranford’s meeting during 2005 show no awareness that one of the township’s options was simply to complete an application that had already been begun. This is astonishing — the issue was important enough to be discussed four times during the year, often at considerable length, but no one knew what the facts were?

To me what is astonishing is the failure of the state, not Cranford. They should have notified Cranford of the application status at least annually, if not quarterly. The state government should not be so naive about the way local government works. This sin of omission is so common with government. I have said numerous times that every single individual, government and corporate entity is probably breaking about 800 laws every day. Think about all the laws and regulations on the books. Can you be in compliance with every one of them all the time? The vast majority are unenforced or even forgotten about (not even mentioning the frequency of NJ politicians overtly and knowingly breaking them). Many are used in “gotcha” circumstances when somebody is either looking for leverage in a situation or to remove someone or something that is an “obstacle” without resorting to murder. 

The township’s elected officials, and the professionals who advise them, must bear the brunt of the responsibility for this failure. Some blame can also be placed on Cranford’s outdated government structure, which, with its constant turnover and lack of consistent leadership, is uniquely ill-suited to address long-term problems that require institutional memory.

Despite Cranford’s goverment turnover, the blame, I think, falls on the career civil service employees who do not. Many have been in place for years and parhaps a little too complacent. They certainly could have maintained a “to do” list.

But responsibility must also be placed at the feet of Cranford’s voters, some of whom have adopted a schizophrenic relationship to development. At the turn of this century, there was tremendous pressure on the township’s leaders to stimulate growth downtown — to make Cranford more than the home of nail salons and pizza parlors. But every time municipal officials have tried to take steps to do that, they have been fought tooth and nail by a vocal group of residents scared of what change will bring. For members of the Township Committee, the political calculation is quite clear: Come out in favor of a high-density project — and almost by definition, a development that contains affordable housing will be high-density — and you’ll face the wrath of these residents. The township’s hand-wringing about whether or not to seek certification for a housing plan may have had something to do with honest, if misguided, differences of opinion. But the failure to act was rewarded, in the short term, by the attitude that affordable housing is something to be avoided.

This attitude is juvenile — it amounts to covering your ears and shouting at the top of your lungs in an effort to drown out reality. Given the current real estate market, there is no way to stimulate downtown growth without permitting new residences. Given current state law, there is no way to permit new residences without setting some aside for low- and moderate-income individuals. We believe this law is, despite its flaws, wise and just. Many people disagree. But like it or not, it’s the law of the land.

The voters aren’t so much to blame as the vocal NIMBY lobby. The fact is that they have way too strong a voice here. They are now a large enough faction (even though still very small) and they are emboldened by the withdrawal of the Birchwood application and the dragging out of the CSC cell tower and Riverfront. The thing is, the TC must realize that taking ANY action whatsoever, besides giving in to all of their demands, will not make these people happy. And ten minutes after one fight is over, they’ll be ready to start a new one. (I’m not doing a good job of disguising my contempt for these people am I? The thing is, sometimes things are worth fighting over, some things not so much.  These folks can’t seem to make that distinction.)

One question I have is, should some of these new developments be put to a non-binding referendum of some sort? Shouldn’t we flush out the NIMBY lobby as the small group that they really are? And, in the unlikely event that the referendum loses big, then at least we have found a pulse on the citizenry of our town and the TC can act accordingly.

Over the course of eight years, Cranford had many chances to get on the right side of the law, and passed them all up. Now, the township is paying the price.

A bit of a slap by Mr. Marx – maybe TC member Robinson can do some of this pro-bono?

We’ll see how this plays out.