Court decision frees Springfield to implement COAH plan

State Appellate Court overturns previous county decision, thereby ending Springfield’s five-year struggle against high-density housing.

By: Scott Morgan
   SPRINGFIELD — The township’s five-year fight to stop high-density housing won a legal victory last week when an appellate court overturned a decision that had given developers the right to build in the township.
   About a year after a pair of South Jersey developers, Sod Farm Associates and Springco Inc., sued the township for the right to build homes there, county Superior Court Judge John Sweeney ruled in October 2002, that Springfield was in violation of state Council On Affordable Housing (COAH) laws requiring every municipality to provide a certain level of low- and moderate-cost housing. Judge Sweeney ruled that both Springfield and COAH were taking too long to provide development plans for state approval and said the developers had the right to build.
   But on Jan. 28, the State Appellate Division unanimously overturned Judge Sweeney’s ruling, saying he had overstepped his authority. According to the ruling, both Springfield and COAH had appealed to the state on these grounds. The appellate ruling also states that while COAH must define fair housing needs for municipalities, the council has the right to take its time in doing so.
   Springfield officials, now relieved of the suit, are delighted.
   "This is very good news," said Councilwoman Lisa Specca, equating the long battle with "a bad, rotten tooth." Ms. Specca said the builders’ only option now is to appeal to the state Supreme Court, or to the Appellate Division itself. She said the township "is extremely confident" that the builders will do neither. Sod Farm Associates dropped out of the suit last year when the Burlington County Board of Chosen Freeholders’ office bought its 640-acre sod farm for preservation in November, leaving Springco on its own. The Supreme Court typically does not review unanimous appellate court decision unless they involve substantial constitutional issues.
   The state’s decision comes exactly three weeks after COAH awarded substantive certification to Springfield Township’s plan for affordable housing, a five-year process that effectively protects Springfield from further builders’ remedy lawsuits until 2010. Mayor William Pettit called the certification "a great day for agriculture and a great day for Springfield Township."
   The next step for Springfield, Ms. Specca said, is to implement its COAH plan. The township, based on COAH’s certification, is required to provide 68 affordable housing units (also known as "credits"), half of which the township will pay Beverly to build through a Regional Contribution Agreement, said Councilman Denis McDaniel.
   COAH — which determines affordable housing numbers based on regional, not local, need — allows for municipalities to sell up to 50 percent of their credits to other towns in their region that have a more urgent need for affordable housing, he said.
   Beverly will receive $680,000 for the 34 credits, Mr. McDaniel said. There are also 15 existing, older stock homes in Springfield that will be rehabilitated through COAH funding to meet current state requirements, he said. In the meantime, the township will save a lot of money, now that the lawsuit is effectively over.
   "Budgetarily, this will free up a lot of resources," said Ms. Specca. "We’ve spent a shocking amount of money (approximately $250,000) getting to this point. It should be a nice respite where we can do some forward thinking and planning."