Fountains battle puts residents in spotlight

Neighbors come together
to form RAID and fight
plan for 304 apartments

By kathy baratta
Staff Writer

Fountains battle puts
residents in spotlight
Neighbors come together
to form RAID and fight
plan for 304 apartments
By kathy baratta
Staff Writer

CHRIS KELLY  Sharon Carpenter-Migliaccio and her husband, Jay Migliaccio, of Howell, are among the members of a citizens group called RAID who are opposing a plan put forth by an applicant who wants to build 300 apartments in a development to be called The Fountains.CHRIS KELLY Sharon Carpenter-Migliaccio and her husband, Jay Migliaccio, of Howell, are among the members of a citizens group called RAID who are opposing a plan put forth by an applicant who wants to build 300 apartments in a development to be called The Fountains.

HOWELL — Bucolic bliss are two words that aptly describe the life that Sharon Carpenter-Migliaccio and her husband, Jay, were sharing with their preschool son when their neighbor Elaine Taylor alerted them to a housing project proposal for their neck of the woods that would drastically alter their way of life.

Tucked quietly down the lane, literally, they were living the American dream in a home previously owned by Sharon’s grandmother.

When Taylor told them about a developer’s proposal to build an apartment complex to be called The Fountains — a major residential development at the edge of their little piece of paradise at the end of Estelle Lane — they knew it was a battle they would have to help fight.

The Fountains, as currently proposed, calls for the construction of 304 apartments on property between Route 9 and Maxim-Southard Road. That is a reduction from an initial plan for 348 units. Planning Board hearings on the application are continuing. The next hearing is scheduled for Dec. 12 at 8 p.m.

Nonetheless, even at the reduced number, the apartment complex featuring a 20 percent set-aside of apartments to be rented to people whose income meets guidelines set by the state Council On Affordable Housing (COAH) was going to be something the Migliaccios, Taylor and other neighbors believed had to be stopped.

Jay Migliaccio said that as he sees it, the opponents of The Fountains are fighting as much for the people who will be "stuck there" as they are for the continuation of the neighborhood’s quality of life. He called the project "an ill-conceived plan in the wrong area."

If The Fountains is built as planned, Migliaccio said, "There won’t be one place for their kids to play."

With all of that in mind, the three residents went knocking on their neighbors’ doors both literally and figuratively and put together a coalition of opposition to the project.

Calling itself RAID — Residents Against Irresponsible Development — the group members put their money where their mouths were and hired an attorney to fight The Fountains.

Taking on the deep pockets of the developer, MGD Holdings, would prove no easy feat and at this point RAID may be down financially, but not out, according to the Migliaccios, who said they, Taylor and the core group will take up the gauntlet themselves if the money needed to retain their attorney runs out.

Carpenter-Migliaccio said she will devote herself to the fight no matter what it takes.

"Fighting The Fountains has become Sharon’s full-time job," Jay Migliaccio said.

A bright, attractive woman who makes her own hours as a professional make-up artist, Carpenter-Migliaccio said she has learned a lot over the course of the past year on the heretofore unknown subject of the state’s affordable housing mandates and how they affect Howell.

"I like doing the research. I like finding things," she said.

Now a known entity in Trenton, where she attends COAH meetings, and in the 30th legislative district, where she sought help from state Sen. Robert Singer, Carpenter-Migliaccio has entered a realm and educated herself to the point where she may be able to spearhead the RAID opposition herself if the money for the attorney runs out.

Taylor, who said she had never met Carpenter-Migliaccio until she knocked on her door to apprise her of The Foun-tains proposal, told Greater Media News-papers that if it wasn’t for Carpenter-Migliaccio, "they’d probably be building there right now."

"She doesn’t leave any stone unturned," Taylor said, referring to Carpenter-Migliaccio’s relentless pursuit of people and documents that can help in RAID’s opposition to the project.

In undertaking this opposition to The Fountains, Carpenter-Migliaccio said she never wanted to "get political" but, she said, "they left me no choice."

According to her, "they" were the members of the Township Council, especially the Democratic incumbents, who she said were turning a deaf ear and not helping in the residents’ fight.

"In fact, they seemed to be doing what they could to get the project approved," said Carpenter-Migliaccio, who said MGD Holdings’ continued unpreparedness for Planning Board meetings should have been enough to close the application until its representatives could offer up the necessary exhibits and maps needed by the board at each meeting.

She said that why she aggressively campaigned for the Republican council candidates.

Three Republicans — Juan Malave, Peter Tobasco and Joseph DiBella — won election in November. Two Democratic incumbents — Kimberly Alvarez and George Pettignano — were defeated. A third incumbent, Fritz Kirchhof, failed in an independent bid for re-election.

There is "no question that RAID was absolutely fantastic for our campaign. We want Sharon to play an active and useful role on our team," DiBella said.

For her part, Carpenter-Migliaccio said, "I couldn’t understand the (council’s) refusal to take a hard stand here. This is a project that was not only bad for this area, but bad for all of Howell." She said once she went about fact-finding, "I was in for a real education."

Over the past year, Carpenter-Migliaccio has attended meetings in Trenton and poured over countless land use documents at Howell’s municipal offices.

It was this investigative process that led Carpenter-Migliaccio to inquire at a recent council meeting about $168,000 she claimed was missing from the town’s affordable housing trust. The trust is an account into which developers pay fees that are used by the town to help meet its COAH obligations to provide affordable housing.

Howell’s Chief Financial Officer Jeffrey Filiatreault said there was some money owed to the trust, but that Carpenter-Migliaccio had been wrong on the amount. Filiatreault said his investigation of the matter determined there was $56,000 that had not yet been paid by one developer.

Subsequent to that, Filiatreault said Howell had received $48,000 from the developer, who was disputing the remaining $8,000. The CFO said he had given the developer one month to check his records and produce a canceled check that would prove his payment.

Carpenter-Migliaccio also rattled the Democratic majority’s cage by bringing Singer, a Republican state senator from Lakewood whose district includes Howell, into the fight against The Fountains.

"We (she and Jay) met with Mr. Singer because we weren’t getting any help from town hall. We didn’t want to get political, but they left us no choice," she said, adding that Singer is looking into the environmental concerns RAID outlined in a private environmental study it commissioned.

Carpenter-Migliaccio said that over the last year she has learned, "The town has many options available to kill this thing."

Along with quality of life issues and traffic concerns, Carpenter-Migliaccio said there are enough environmental issues involving endangered species and wetlands that should be enough to halt The Fountains.

She maintains there are other, more creative ways available for Howell to satisfy its COAH obligations that need have nothing to do with more building. These options include regional contribution agreements in which Howell would pay money from its affordable housing trust to a town that would rehabilitate its own existing substandard housing.

"What gets me is why did it take us (RAID) to find these things out and point them out to the governing body? Why do we pay township professionals like Sheehan?" Migliaccio said, referring to township planner Thomas Sheehan.

Taylor and the Migliaccios said that regardless of whether or not RAID can continue to pay for an attorney’s services, they are not going away and are not going to stop fighting The Fountains.

In an effort to fill the RAID coffers, the group members are now working to develop fund-raising ideas.

Once The Fountains project is rejected or approved, Carpenter-Migliaccio said she can only speak for herself and her husband in saying they will continue to attend council and Planning Board meetings to "keep an eye on things."

Carpenter-Migliaccio also said she would be interested in getting involved with starting an affordable housing committee that would oversee future COAH obligations.

She said she would also like to work toward attracting groups such as Habitat for Humanity or other organizations that rehabilitate old homes and build new ones for families that might not otherwise be able to afford a home in this area.

"Freewood Acres alone, do you know how many rehabs you could have in there?" Migliaccio said.

"We need something that makes sense, not this dense housing that doesn’t fit in with the community; this clustering people in one spot like they were cattle," Carpenter-Migliaccio said of Howell’s attempt to meet COAH obligations.