On Tuesday, December 4, the Township Committee and the Planning Board held a joint meeting to present the new affordable housing plan, to hear from the public, and to adopt the plan as an amendment to the township’s Master Plan. With every municipality in New Jersey facing a state-imposed deadline for submission of a new COAH compliance plan, similar meetings are taking place across the state. The meeting was not well attended by committee and board members, but a number of Higgins Farm Road residents were present to speak on the one aspect that they preferred not to have in their backyard.
Prior to taking public comment, Shirley Bishop, the township’s COAH professional, gave a recap of the state requirements and the plan for compliance. The state requires 53 new units, which must be phased in as the township grows. If growth is slower, then the rate of building new affordable homes would also slow. Significant changes to Delaware’s plan include a new group home on Locktown Sergeantsville Road, to be run by Allies Inc.; a new affordable housing complex of 12-15 units on a 24-acre lot on Old Croton Rd, abutting Kingwood Township; and a group home for developmentally disabled senior citizens on Higgins Farm Road. This would be built in lieu of the previously planned NORWESCAP adult home and would now be run by ARC of Hunterdon. There would be two modular units on the property, each housing four private bedrooms and bathrooms with shared living and dining areas.
COAH is a controversial topic across the state. Many consider it an unfunded mandate; the required home numbers for rural municipalities are seen as excessive; and townships are not allowed to provide for their own populations, rather the units must be marketed to a wider populace. But on this Tuesday night the residents of Higgins Farm Road were concerned with only one aspect of the larger plan – the access and housing on Higgins Farm Road that would change from a group home for senior citizens to a group home for senior citizens who are developmentally disabled.
Resident John Stark was concerned with access to the 2-unit modular home. He suggested a wholesale change to the site’s access, saying that “If it’s not attached to our development, you wouldn’t even see it; there would be no traffic. If it’s possible to not go into our development, it would be at least a small win for us.”
Another neighbor, Mark Finkelstein, wanted to know who would be residing in the home. “Could we get a definition of the people that are going to qualify for that? I’ve heard ‘developmentally disabled’ but I’m not really clear on that.” Deputy Mayor McCarthy responded that the residents would be “frail elderly”; they would have to have been diagnosed with their disability prior to age 18; and they would have previously lived in a group home.
Carman Davis of Higgins Farm Road worried, not about the residents but the staff. “My concern is the staffing, because there is a high turnover rate.” Again, Ms. McCarthy tried to allay concerns pointing out that there would only be two staff present at any given time – one for each of the two units. She also encouraged the residents to visit the ARC home, which has existed in Sergeantsville since 1982: “They are really lovely people and are very attentive.”
A number of comments focused on the access to the site, which has been planned since the time of the original layout for the development of Lester Higgins’ chicken farm. The development, including the COAH units, was the result of a 1995 settlement of legal action brought by Mr. Higgins against the township and mediated by COAH. But despite the prior agreement to the use and access of that lot, neighbors were persistent in their desire to see the access re-engineered and removed from Higgins Farm Road.
Ms. McCarthy explained some hard facts: “There are two big issues with the driveway. We don’t have access at the moment, so we’d have to get access from the county road and through someone’s property. And the other issue would be stormwater. Mayor Lockwood agreed: “The road is going to be a problem because we have a Stormwater Management Plan for your entire development and if we try to change that by putting a different road through, it will negatively affect your entire development.”
But another resident implored: “We’ve got 23 homes that would not like it to come through the streets that our children are riding their bikes on. We should look at it, go back to the county, talk to the dentist, and try to make this an actual possibility. Think of the children. When we first started in the development, there weren’t as many children. We have four times as many really small children. For the sake of the children, that challenge should be an option.”
Mayor Lockwood explained that there would actually be a far lower impact with this particular population than there would have been with the previously approved application. There would be eight bedrooms, not ten; and unlike the proposed residents of the previous plan, these residents do not drive.
Finally, Ms. Mullen commented with some asperity: “I don’t mean to be insensitive but these people are going to be walking around and visible to our children and I don’t know how comfortable they’re all going to be with the change.”
In reply, Deputy Mayor McCarthy explained that ARC has been operating a home in Sergeantsville since 1982 and by all accounts has been a success and a good neighbor. She encouraged the neighbors to visit the ARC home, meet the director, and acquaint themselves with the operation.