S. Jersey continues to resist COAH housing

Steve Cohen stands along the Woodcrest Country Club golf course. He owns a brick house overlooking the first hole and wants the country club to remain in use as an active golf course.
Steve Cohen stands along the Woodcrest Country Club golf course. He owns a brick house overlooking the first hole and wants the country club to remain in use as an active golf course. (VIVIANA PERNOT / Staff Photographer)
Posted: June 16, 2014

The acronym alone, COAH, which stands for the Council on Affordable Housing, evokes fear and distrust among some.

But the level of opposition to proposed developments with low- and moderate-income units under court-ordered COAH requirements in three Camden County neighborhoods - including a historic golf course - has been surprising even to some longtime housing advocates.

Residents who live near the proposed sites - two in Cherry Hill and one in Berlin - are letting it be known they don't want them in their backyards by filing lawsuits, staging sign-holding protests, and/or packing public hearings. In the case of Cherry Hill's Woodcrest Country Club, the county has offered to buy the development rights to the 150-acre golf course to prevent a development with low-income units from being built there.

"In most communities, COAH housing is generally lower value/lower return/higher density construction than market-based housing," said Joel Naroff of Naroff Economic Advisors Inc. in Holland, Bucks County, and an Inquirer business columnist. "If it wasn't, it would be built.

"When times are good, builders want to use their land for the highest return possible, and they don't want to be forced to build lower-return product," he said. "But in a slow or soft housing market, where there is not much market-driven construction activity, you have to do what you have to do."

The Council on Affordable Housing was created as a separate agency to administer the state's affordable-housing program after the Fair Housing Act became law in 1985.

But decades after Mount Laurel I (1975) and Mount Laurel II (1983) - the landmark New Jersey Supreme Court decisions that required each municipality to have its fair share of affordable housing - community resistance to COAH mandates, underscored by the recent Camden County cases, remains high.

Boiling over in Berlin

At a Planning Board hearing last Monday at the Berlin Borough municipal building, the crowd's anger toward the attorney for the developer of a proposed 470-unit apartment complex with 71 units to be affordable housing was palpable.

The attorney, Richard Hoff Jr., was representing Berlin Multifamily L.L.C. and was asking the borough's Planning Board to postpone the public hearing that was supposed to be this past Monday for July 14.

Among the more than 80 residents who packed the stiflingly hot courtroom was Joe Theurer, 72, a retiree who lives a block from the 30-acre site on Tansboro Road, a former peach orchard where the apartment complex is being proposed.

"To me, it's the devastation of Berlin," said Theurer, who has lived in the borough for 52 years. "It's going to be a nightmare."

Theurer got up from his seat Monday to address the Planning Board.

"I have five houses on my block up for sale because of this," he began.

Borough Mayor John J. Armano cut Theurer off and told him to save his concerns for the newly scheduled July hearing.

The board granted Hoff's request to postpone the hearing because of the level of interest and need for a bigger venue.

"The low-income housing bothers me more [than the additional traffic]," Theurer said last week. "We will lose [control] of the school district and our taxes will be sky high because [the new renters] won't be paying taxes. Our houses will depreciate to nothing."

Stuart Platt, an attorney for the borough Planning Board, said there was still a jurisdictional issue over whether the development could be all apartments, or a mix of apartments and townhouses, which may require going back to court with the applicant.

Platt said he was meeting with Armano and the seven-member Borough Council later this month to try to resolve it before the July 14 hearing.

"It lingers on," Platt said Friday.

The brick house that overlooks the first green at Woodcrest Country Club in Cherry Hill belongs to Steve Cohen.

Cohen, 69, who works for a company that provides textiles for hotels and resorts, has lived there for 28 years. He wants it to stay an active golf course that he uses regularly.

In early April, Camden County - in conjunction with the township and the state - offered to purchase the development rights to the golf course from owner First Montgomery Group of Marlton, to maintain it as open space and prevent an 844-unit complex with 169 low-income units from being built.

Appraisers are currently determining the value of the development rights for the property.

"I support that completely," Cohen said last week of the county's buying the development rights. "I bought [the house], quite frankly, for the location."

The golf course, he said, sits at what's known as the Five Points intersection - where Evesham Road, Route 561, and Somerdale Road meet, and where traffic is already a problem.

"This will create unbearable traffic issues and also enormous costs, such as schools, public safety, and from what I understand, there are limits on sewer capacity in the area," Cohen said. "The infrastructure is just not there."

Rita McClellan, 49, a senior administrative assistant at Campbell Soup Co., lives about a half-mile from the golf course in Cherry Hill.

Like Cohen, she's a member of the 30-member Woodcrest Organizing Committee that's leading the drive to preserve the golf course as open space. A meeting April 8 drew 300 people from surrounding communities - more than double what was expected - who voiced their concerns.

"It is one of the last few open spaces that Cherry Hill has," McClellan said. "There's plenty of places in Cherry Hill with low-income housing. This is just not the place for it."

A case not settled

A zoning variance to allow residential units on a commercially zoned site on a nine-acre parcel at Brace and Kresson Roads in Cherry Hill drew the wrath of a feisty group of neighbors.

The group raised tens of thousands of dollars from 435 neighbors to cover its legal fees to overturn the variance. It also held several protests at the location - the former ProBuild Haddonfield Lumber site - with residents holding up signs with a slash mark over the planned 152-unit luxury apartment complex that is required under COAH to include 23 units of affordable housing.

At a Fourth of July parade through Erlton last summer, the group drew attention to its cause on a fire truck.

Earlier this year, several supporters braved the rough winter and showed up at every court hearing in Camden. A Superior Court judge in February upheld the Cherry Hill Zoning Board's approval of the controversial complex.

The group is appealing the ruling, on the grounds that the township did not follow legal procedure on changing the zoning. It is continuing to raise money for its legal fund from neighborhoods surrounding the site.

"Our case is not settled," said Robert Shinn, one of eight resident plaintiffs who sued the township Zoning Board. "We are zealously pursuing the matter at the Appellate Division."

Added Shinn, 65, who lives a mile from the development: "If we don't appeal and win, most other parcels in Cherry Hill not currently zoned for high-density residential housing will be able to do an end run around the township's Master Plan to allow apartments or condos with a minimum of affordable housing."

sparmley@phillynews.com856-779-3928 @SuzParmley

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