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RPM Development receives approval to build affordable housing

Lawrence Township Zoning Board members listened to two hours of testimony on Jan. 20 regarding RPM Development's proposed affordable housing complex.

Eight meetings and seven months later, RPM Development LLC’s application for a 54-unit affordable housing development – next to the Lawrence Shopping Center – has gained the approval of the Lawrence Township Zoning Board of Adjustment.

The zoning board approved RPM Development LLC’s request for a use variance at a special meeting on April 28, and also granted preliminary site plan approval. The applicant must return to the zoning board for final site plan approval at a later date.

The zoning board also granted preliminary and final major subdivision approval, which means RPM Development LLC can go ahead with its purchase of a 4.3-acre lot from the owners of the Lawrence Shopping Center. The lot will be subdivided from the shopping center.

A use variance was needed because duplex and multi-family housing are not permitted in the Highway Commercial and Residential-4 zones. Most of the parcel is in the Highway Commercial zone, and a sliver of the lot is in the R-4 zone.

The application called for 70 rental apartments in a mix of three multi-story apartment buildings and six duplex buildings on the 4.3-acre lot on Texas Avenue. But after several meetings, the applicant tweaked the plan and dropped 16 apartments, resulting in the 54-unit plan.

One of the three apartment buildings was eliminated, and four apartments were lopped off the third floor of another apartment building. Two pavilions, a patio, benches and a bicycle rack are planned for the area where the third apartment building was proposed.

All of the rental apartments will be affordable to low- and moderate-income households. It is intended to help Lawrence Township meet its need to provide affordable housing. The township was among many New Jersey towns that were sued by the nonprofit Fair Share Housing Center for allegedly failing to provide their fair share of affordable housing.

Attorney Ryan Kennedy, who represented RPM Development LLC, told the zoning board that the sale of the 4.3-acre lot is “key” to generating more money for the owner of the Lawrence Shopping Center, which it needs to continue the revitalization of the shopping center.

Beth McManus, the zoning board’s planning consultant, and Ed Schmierer, the zoning board attorney, cautioned the board that denial of the application could land the township and the zoning board in court. The board’s denial could be challenged by the applicant, they said.

Kevin Kavanaugh of RPM Development LLC said a development such as the one that is being proposed is is also called “workforce housing,” and would be affordable to a teacher or a career firefighter, he said.

“They need a decent place to live. This is housing for those people,” Kavanaugh said.

Reaction to the proposed development was mixed when the meeting was opened for public comment. Some residents favored the application, while others questioned whether this was the right site for an affordable housing development. It would face the loading docks of the shopping center.

Jasmine Surti said her children could go to school with the children whose families would live in RPM Development LLC’s apartment complex. She said she would be “so proud of our town” if the development could move forward.

Fred Vereen Jr., who was instrumental in the development of the Eggerts Crossing Village affordable housing complex off Johnson Avenue in the Eggerts Crossing neighborhood, said he favored RPM Development LLC’s proposal.

“I am impressed by what I have heard. I have been involved in affordable housing for 50 years. I like what I see. I am all in favor of it,” Vereen said.

But other township residents were not as keen on RPM Development LLC’s application.

Stacy Antler questioned township officials’ qualifications to act on the application. While the zoning board is “well intentioned,” the board has almost been pushed to the point of bullying, she said. The board has been advised that rejecting the application could mean going back to court.

Tom Tucker suggested spreading out the affordable housing on “in-fill lots” – vacant lots that are scattered throughout the township. There could be better sites than the lot behind the loading dock at the Lawrence Shopping Center, he said.

Zoning board members rejected the notion that the board is being bullied.

Zoning board member Peter Kremer said the zoning board is “all about the process.” It works within the parameters of the state Municipal Land Use Law and case law, and also listens to the public. The board is “totally independent,” and does not interview applicants, he said.

Zoning board members Charles Lavine and Joseph Blaney said they did not feel that the zoning board was being bullied. RPM Development LLC worked with the zoning board in response to comments about the plan, and made it a better development, they said.

“I don’t like the comment about being bullied. I am never one to be bullied. People have to understand that the zoning board doesn’t go out and find sites for affordable housing. A developer comes in with an application, and it is up to us to analyze it and weigh it,” Lavine said.

“It is not an ideal project, but I find there is no such thing as an ‘ideal housing project.’ Nothing is ideal. There are trade-offs. (This development) is acceptable. It was given to us, we did not ask for it. If we did, I assure you it would be a different development,” Lavine said.

Kremer agreed and said that it is not the development that he would want to see on the site – “but we don’t get to make that call.”

Zoning board members also agreed that RPM Development LLC’s application met the criterion of being an inherently beneficial use, which makes it difficult to deny an application. An inherently beneficial use is one that provides a benefit to the community, such as a school, a church or an affordable housing development.

“I hope the applicant and his team will take to heart the residents’ concerns about this type of project (and) be conscious of the quality of life in Lawrence,” Lavine said.

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