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Get Out of Town

by Samantha Melamed
Across South Jersey, “not in my backyard” has become a common refrain. Are we merely protecting our neighborhoods—or are we dooming our region to an unsustainable future?

“I just don’t think this is the place for it.”

For those warily eyeing affordable housing developments in Marlton, homeless shelters in Burlington County, group homes for troubled youth in Pennsauken and cell phone towers in Washington Township, that phrase has been repeated so often, it’s practically become a mantra for dozens of South Jersey communities.

When it comes to new neighbors, South Jerseyans may be the first to stop by with a bundt cake and a smile. But when it comes to high-density residential developments, social services programs and just about anything else that might not be a boon to property values or tax ratables, many in our region take a different tack.

Sure, the not-in-my-backyard ethos—NIMBY, as it’s rather unlovingly known—has helped protect our townships and boroughs, nurturing serene stretches of Medford farmland and the vibrancy of downtown Haddonfield. But it has also fed protracted legal and civic battles that drain the coffers of social service nonprofits, (not to mention taxpayers), and sometimes prevent them from ministering in our region altogether. Furthermore, it has been codified into restrictive zoning rules that some say lock out low- and moderate-income housing and prevent some people from becoming part of this community altogether.

“As soon as you tell people you are trying to provide housing for lower-income folks, you run into resistance from the immediate neighbors and then the community at large, saying, ‘That brings drugs. That brings crime,’” says Kent Pipes, a Burlington County affordable housing provider who has been outspoken on the topic. “There’s a real bias against trying to help poor people.”

As to the impacts of this phenomenon on everything from economic mobility to traffic patterns to environmental sustainability across South Jersey, they could be further reaching than any of us might imagine.

When the Drenk Behavioral Health Center decided to open a group home in Pennsauken for teenage boys with emotional and behavioral problems, Harry Marmorstein knew there was only one way to go about it: very quietly.

By New Jersey law, Drenk and similar service providers are not required to offer public notice of such facilities. “And so, we do not,” says Marmorstein, chief executive of the Hainesport-based nonprofit, “The reason is because, in the past when we’ve tried to, we’ve been met with lots of resistance and hostility…. And quite honestly, [the tactic of stealth] has been effective in the last three facilities that we’ve opened.”

But when a Pennsauken neighbor asked a contractor—busy renovating what had long been a boarded-up house on Cove Road—who was moving in, a small firestorm began. Complaints were made. A public meeting was called.

“Between 75 and 100 people came out from the neighborhood to let me know that they were not happy,” says Marmorstein. “It’s a fear of the unknown.”

Nonetheless, the home opened last October. The number of complaints since its opening, according to the Pennsauken police department: zero. In fact, Marmorstein says he received a voicemail from the former mayor this spring, congratulating him on the group home’s success up to this point.

For organizations like Drenk, this cycle has become routine. Indeed, knee-jerk resistance to group homes for youth has been so uniform across the state that New Jersey created a law to protect them, ordering zoning officials to consider them single-family residences. But, Marmorstein says pursuing these suburban locations is necessary, citing the importance of keeping children near their communities and home school districts whenever possible.

Pat Lasusky, who runs the Mount Laurel-based Interfaith Hospitality Network (IHN) of Burlington County, says she’s been coping with this issue for decades. In fact, her organization’s service model—housing homeless families in a rotating string of community churches for a week at a time—is specifically “intended to get around NIMBY-ism,” she says.

Even so, she adds, “I’m not saying there aren’t neighborhoods that have fought against people staying there.” Some participating host churches have been hit with fees and special inspections by fire departments, zealously enforcing codes they tend to relax for other overnight stays, like church youth group lock-ins.

The activities at IHN’s day center are also confined by the building’s zoning variance, which, Lasusky says, “made it clear that we were not preparing or serving food; that we were not going to have anyone sleeping on site; and that we were not going to use the building in the evenings.” While some other IHN branches have been able to expand their range of services, the Burlington County branch cannot do so as a result of these restrictions.

Lasusky says other nonprofits in the region have faced even greater difficulties. She points to the Good Counsel Home, which opened this April in Riverside to the unconcealed trepidation of neighbors.

“They had a tremendous amount of pushback from the neighborhood—and this is a shelter for nine pregnant women. I said, ‘What are they afraid of? That a pregnant woman’s big belly is going to push someone off the sidewalk?’” she says. “I’m surprised at how small-minded people are.”

New Jersey’s policy of home rule—that is, reserving substantial power to our 566 municipalities—has yielded a dynamic of tense opposition. Namely, it’s a battle between municipal motivations to raise ratables and check spending obligations such as education, and statewide needs to serve low-income individuals, provide affordable housing and offer services for the homeless and at-risk youth.

Operations like IHN and Drenk, as well as some nonprofits for people with disabilities, are protected explicitly by state laws; otherwise, claim social service providers, municipalities would find a way to lock them out. Affordable housing, too, is mandated. (“New Jersey is the only state in the country where affordable housing is a constitutional obligation,” notes Matthew Reilly, president of Moorestown-based MEND, a nonprofit affordable housing provider.)

But there are other organizations—especially those serving the homeless—that don’t fall under these protections.

“It’s a direct result of this that most homeless people in Burlington County are out-placed to Camden or Gloucester counties. I believe that’s wrong to ask people who live in Burlington County to go to an area that most of us would not care to go to, simply because they become homeless,” says Lasusky. “There are agencies that have the funding and are ready to open shelters, and they can’t find a place to put them.”

In fact, there is a plan Afoot to establish a 10- to 15-acre campus for transitional housing and services in the area, via a coalition called Burlington County Concerned Citizens for Sheltering the Homeless. The proposal calls for a full range of interim housing options plus a mall-like area that will bring a smorgasbord of service providers under one roof. (But, says Madelyn Mears-Sheldon, president of the coalition, “Please don’t call it a shelter—everyone will be breaking out in a sweat.”)

The group has been holding public forums, attempting to rally support for what’s estimated to be a $40 million project. Pipes, a trustee of the group, says 42 municipalities were invited to participate in the three forums to date, but so far only about five representatives have attended. Pipes doesn’t expect securing a location for the center to be easy. “I go back and forth on this,” he says, “but more and more I’m bracing for a fight.”

Pipes has become used to such battles as president of the Affordable Homes Group, which operates low-income and transitional housing across South Jersey.

“There is no negotiation for the homeless,” he says. “We’ve always had to go the zoning board for a denial, be denied and take them to court—and we’ve won 12 out of 13 cases.”

Pipes has found some collaborators. He’s currently working closely with Florence and Westampton townships on new housing projects, as well as a planned headquarters for his organization.

But in Willingboro Township, he’s mired in a legal battle for the right to turn two single-family houses into smaller units of transitional housing. Pipes says it’s a case of the town refusing to acknowledge its changing demographics. The units, he says, would be “for single-parent heads of household. There are a lot of young women, [single mothers] coming out of Willingboro, and they don’t have any properties for people like them,” Pipes says. While a Superior Court judge ruled in favor of the proposal, Pipes says the township is “fighting it all the way to the appellate division.” (Willingboro’s mayor did not respond to repeated requests for comment.)

Pipes estimates that these courtroom skirmishes add $5,000 to $20,000 to the cost of any given project, including attorney fees, filing fees and property taxes paid while the houses sit vacant. That’s funding many nonprofits don’t have to spare. And, he argues, such lawsuits are also a drain on taxpayer dollars.

Of course, not every project in South Jersey meets such resistance. MEND, which has been in Moorestown for 42 years, has found municipalities more amenable. Reilly says that’s in part because its activities were geographically concentrated in Moorestown for decades before it began broadening its reach. “All municipalities check in with each other,” he says. “When we started expanding our operations out of Moorestown, the other municipalities checked in with Moorestown, and asked, ‘Would you recommend them?’”

In general, he adds, “the municipalities we’ve worked with have tried very hard to meet their affordable housing obligations, and we’ve found them to be helpful and cooperative and supportive for our efforts. Does that mean that every single citizen in each one of those municipalities was in favor of or supported our efforts? That would probably be a stretch to say that.”

Now, a similar issue is coming to the fore in Haddonfield, as residents and officials debate the future of the 18.7-acre Bancroft campus, which may soon be vacated by the special-needs school in the heart of the town’s historic district. To develop the land, the borough plans to set aside sports fields for the adjacent high school, and will also need to provide around 30 affordable housing units in keeping with state standards, Mayor Tish Colombi says. Options, including an 80-unit 55-plus community, a 120-unit elderly housing community and a third plan that calls for more open space with some affordable housing, have been floated—to varying levels of approval.

“The neighbors closest to the high school, where a lighted field would be, fear the addition of more traffic,” Colombi notes. “They think about those things, and any change you make, they think, ‘How will it affect my own neighborhood?’”

Kim Custer, who lives a block from Bancroft, says that’s natural. “We do like to have our quiet time,” she says. “I would be very concerned that we would be looking at a high- density structure.”

Jeanette Morrissey, acting president of the community organization Preservation Haddonfield, agrees. “We want to advocate for the preservation of what we have,” she says, “and advocate against the changes happening here in town that threaten our uniqueness.” So when it comes to the Bancroft space, “we just want to make sure it’s used in the right way.”

With fliers and word of mouth, the group has accumulated around 200 members—and has already used their collective voice to challenge a redevelopment plan for the 19th-century Boxwood Hall in town, where a developer was attempting to establish a continuing-care retirement community with four low-income units, Morrissey says. “We don’t have any problem with seniors and affordable housing units—just as long as it’s in our guidelines for redevelopment. We want to preserve our historic district,” she says. “We don’t want this small town to be overextended.” A judge is currently considering the case—and whether Haddonfield’s redevelopment guidelines can stand.

Just what is it that THE neighbors are so worried about? Those who have run up against the NIMBY effect say preemptive complaints range from the potential for increased crime and drug traffic to aesthetic concerns. But one constant is a feared impact on property values, a worry aggravated by the ongoing real estate downturn, which has seen property values fall by $2 billion in the past two years in Camden County alone, according to the county.

These were the types of complaints Marmorstein fielded ahead of Drenk’s opening in Pennsauken. “Specifically, one of the neighbors next to us had his house for sale prior to us buying this property, and was like, ‘Now, I’ll never sell it,’” he says.

When it came to a proposed cell phone tower in Washington Township last year, residents turned up en masse with similar concerns—plus the added fodder of potential health risks, says Chris Del Borello, president of the Washington Township Council and liaison to the Zoning Board of Adjustments. More than 100 residents came to public meetings, and some went so far as to retain an attorney to block the tower’s zoning variance. “When companies are trying to seek variances, you never know the resistance you’ll get from residents,” says Del Borello. “Each project has its own details and its own advocacy groups.”

In the end, the T-Mobile cell tower ended up one town over, in Monroe.

Of course, just as the 120-foot-high tower is now merely a part of the Gloucester County landscape, most social service organizations in South Jersey make a point of blending in quietly. “We’re right next door to a development called Pheasant Mere,” says IHN’s Lasusky. “I always joke that I would like to get a sign up out front that says, ‘Mere Peasants.’ But I’m sure they don’t even know we’re here. We’ve never done anything to disturb anyone.”

And much like that cell phone tower—installed in an area where Del Borello admits there was once a scattering of dead zones—such programs can, if administered well, benefit the very community that protests their establishment.

A well-run program offers far more security than leaving individuals to their own devices, argues Amir Khan, pastor at Cherry Hill’s Solid Rock Worship Center and head of the Nehemiah Group, which runs transitional housing for the homeless and former prison inmates at the Genesis House in Bridgeton, among other locations.

“A lot of the housing done today is done through social services, where we get them temporary rental assistance, so they’re in the neighborhoods anyway and [neighbors] don’t know it,” he says. “So they would want to have homes like ours and services like ours, because individuals are coming into the neighborhoods anyway.”

Furthermore, adds Mears-Sheldon, preventive measures are actually more cost-effective and beneficial to the community at large. “What is the benefit of [homeless people] being on the street? It’s detrimental to their health. It’s unsafe for them. And if you don’t have money to eat, you’re going to figure out some other way to do that—which is shoplifting or picking through the garbage. And then, they end up in the emergency room, and … the taxpayers end up paying.”

But when the worst does occasionally happen, the repercussions are vast—and neighbors feel all their darkest fears have been realized.

That was the case in Cherry Hill’s Ashland neighborhood this spring, when Jason Bacino—who was staying at Khan’s Solid Rock property and getting assistance from The Nehemiah Group, albeit informally—was charged with a string of burglaries in the vicinity. Suddenly, the neighbors were on high alert.

“The people who’ve had their houses robbed, they’re still scared,” says Rita McClellan, who heads the Ashland Community Group, which organized in opposition to the Nehemiah Group and has lobbied to eject it from the neighborhood. McClellan, who lives three blocks from Solid Rock, has added a security bar on her back door and now requires her children to check in with her more frequently. “To keep my children safe and my family safe, I’ve changed my security habits,” she says.

Khan denies that the church serves Nehemiah Group clients on its grounds—and, he points out that Bacino was a Cherry Hill native, not the Camden import that some might suggest. But neighbors like McClellan are not moved.

“Where they’re ministering right now is not an appropriate place, because there is an elementary school, Horace Mann School, less than a half-mile away. They’re bringing offenders into the neighborhood and that location is just not the place to do it,” she says.

What would be more appropriate, she says, is “someplace on Route 70 that’s not near a residential neighborhood. Anywhere near a residential neighborhood is just not the place for it.”

Of course, NIMBY-ism is given a different name when it goes up against big business and other interests: grassroots community activism.

For example, the Ashland Residential Coalition (ARC) in Voorhees, which indirectly backed McClellan’s group, rallied several years ago to prevent development on a 20-acre parcel of woods and wetlands in the area. “The group got together to protect that piece of property, to explain to the town council how important that property was, not only to the local community but to the state and region as a whole,” says Edward Hale, president of the ARC. Now, he says, the property represents a vital link in a proposed greenway stretching across the state out to Barnegat Bay.

It’s only natural that each of us wants to protect our own neighborhood. But what happens when we allow our inherent NIMBY-ism to rule us?

John Hasse—a Rowan University professor and chairman of Rowan’s Department of Geography and Environment—has looked into that future, and it doesn’t bode well. He says the outlook for the environment, the inclusiveness of our society and even our traffic patterns could be at stake.

By studying land use patterns statewide via highly accurate maps provided by the New Jersey Department of Environmental protection, Hasse discovered a striking mismatch between housing needs and what’s actually being built in South Jersey. “Three-quarters of the land being developed is being developed in these large parcels that consume a lot of open space, farmland and forest land,” he says. “They have a large impact on the environment—and they are not generally affordable housing.”

He also studied how municipal zoning regulations, as they currently stand, will shape our region’s landscape down the road. (Though this part of the study was restricted to Somerset and Monmouth counties, Hasse says development across South Jersey’s counties is similar enough that the findings can be extrapolated.)

“In some cases, the amount of jobs that could be built as the zoning allows is 10 times as much as the amount of housing that can be built: there’s an imbalance,” Hasse says. “Towns are much more concerned about trying to get ratable land uses, like industrial and commercial, and they’re trying to avoid high-density residential that would bring in a number of children they would have to educate.”

That imbalance will exacerbate our gridlock—as people have to drive further to get to their jobs—and encourage suburban sprawl. And that’s not even considering the social implications.

“It may not be intentionally trying to keep poor people out of your town,” Hasse says. But the end result of zoning out apartment buildings, townhouses and other small-lot or multifamily residences is, “it creates a segregated society.”

This is nothing new. In fact, the concern goes back more than 36 years—to when the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled on a Mount Laurel case on the very issue of exclusionary zoning. Out of this so-called Mount Laurel doctrine, New Jersey’s Fair Housing Act was born, mandating affordable housing in growth towns and creating the Council on Affordable Housing (COAH) to oversee the execution of that mandate.

“That,” says Pipes, “resulted in 25 years of litigation, and all the fights over who has to do what.” As a result of those battles—and, the way Pipes tells it, towns’ perpetual search for loopholes—the regulations and bureaucracy around COAH became increasingly complex. “The state had to have guidelines mandating the towns meet their numbers or else they would have done their best to shift off their responsibility.”

In 2008, Evesham called off a plan to investigate development of a parcel of land on Route 70 into a $50 million shopping center—specifically because the affordable housing obligations would have been too onerous, Mayor Randy Brown said at the time. And a few years ago, Medford Township attempted to bring the issue to a head, presenting the argument that COAH and its regulations amounted to an illegal unfunded state mandate that would cost municipalities a collective $6 billion.

That claim was dismissed. But today, COAH is itself at a turning point: Gov. Chris Christie has put forward a plan to eliminate the agency altogether, thus putting the outlook for affordable housing mandates into question.

“I’ve always believed that municipalities should be able to make their own decisions on affordable housing without being micromanaged and second-guessed from Trenton,” Christie said in a statement. “The Department of Community Affairs, [which is set to take over for COAH], will work with municipalities on affordable housing, not against them.”

Municipal leaders say it’s the red tape—not the obligation to provide affordable housing—that they have a problem with, and some are optimistic that Christie’s decision will streamline and improve the process.

In the meantime, though, local residents will be watching and preparing to step in as needed to protect their communities.

As Haddonfield’s Morrissey puts it, “We’re trying to set a precedent to preserve what we have, so that big developers can’t just come in and do whatever they want.”

Published (and copyrighted) in South Jersey Magazine, Volume 8, Issue 5 (August, 2011).
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