Hopewell Township reaches tentative settlement in affordable housing litigation

Hopewell Township has reached a settlement “in principle” with three separate landowners who are
interested parties in its affordable housing litigation, including two intervenors, officials said.

The agreements follow settlements in other Mercer County towns, including East Windsor and Lawrence. Lawyers for several municipalities in Mercer County have been trying to reach settlements in Mercer County Superior Court for months now regarding the required number of affordable housing units the towns are required to build.

The settlement agreements are part of a broader Affordable Housing plan that seeks to address present and prospective need in COAH’s third round, which covers the 26 years from 1999 to 2025.

Hopewell Township officials say the town already has a substantial number of credits towards its third-round affordable housing obligation. The township will have approximately 10 years to fulfill the balance of its obligations.

By reaching settlements with all intervenors in sewer-service areas, Hopewell Township retains control of the development process moving forward, officials said.

The settlements will now be filed with Superior Court Judge Mary Jacobson. She will review the proposed settlements and schedule a fairness hearing if they meet the court’s requirements. This hearing will be open to the public, intervenors and other interested parties. The public will be notified well in advance of the hearing date.

Parallel to this process, the Hopewell Township Committee has asked the planning board to determine if the three
aggregate parcels meet the state standard of “areas in need of redevelopment.” This designation would give the township greater control over any resulting development. It would also deliver a 33 percent bonus credit for each affordable housing unit, officials said. COAH’s rules require that municipalities expedite the municipal development reviews for affordable housing.

“Hopewell Township has worked hard to preserve its rural character and these actions will help ensure that we maintain control of the process moving forward. This is a first step in a much longer process, and there will be additional opportunities for the public to weigh in,” Hopewell Township Attorney Linda Galella said.

Hopewell officials said one reason they are settling is to avoid mounting trial costs. Each day of the trial has cost the five participating Mercer County municipalities approximately $15,000, split five ways, officials said. With Lawrence and East Windsor agreeing to settle in recent months and bowing out of the trial, the costs would now be split among the remaining municipalities. An extended appeals process would also be expensive, officials said.

“Standard settlement agreements typically provide a provision for reducing a municipality’s obligations and/or giving credit towards future COAH rounds, if either the court or legislature ultimately takes action to reduce the required number of affordable housing units,” Galella said. “Hopewell Township will benefit from these decisions, without incurring substantial additional litigation expense.”

Officials said the township will take additional action in the weeks ahead to demonstrate its good faith efforts in this process and towards meeting its constitutional obligation to provide affordable housing. Officials have not yet disclosed the proposed number of units the township would be required to build as part of the settlement.

Princeton Mayor Liz Lempert had also announced a settlement “in principle” for the municipality a few months ago, but told reporters last week that the deal was not finalized yet.