TRENTON – The appellate court’s defense this morning of the Highlands Act drew rebukes from advocates of affordable housing and builders.
Kevin Walsh, spokesman for the Fair Share Housing Center, a public interest group that champions the housing rights of the poor, said the Highlands Act was supposed to guide – not stop – growth, and today’s ruling permits the Highlands Council to keep the door shut on future affordable housing in the Highlands region.
“The state is really good at saying where growth shouldn’t go, and not as good at saying where it should go,’’ Walsh said. “What we want is growth in the right places, and that includes starter homes and apartments, and there are certainly places in Highlands where that growth should occur.
“We don’t want towns to run the show and for lower-income folks to continually get the short end of the stick,’’ he said.
In one aspect of Fair Share’s appeal, Walsh said, the court is just wrong.
He said that the court ruled that part of Fair Share’s appeal regarding grants is moot because the grants already were awarded, but Walsh said that process is ongoing, and the court assumed something that was factually incorrect.
“We’re going to have to point that out to the court,’’ he said, “and ask them to issue a subsequent decision.’’
Stephen Eisdorfer, an attorney with Hill Wallack who argued an appeal on behalf of J&S Group Inc., Wanaque Realty Corp., and Mountain Lakes Estates Inc. regarding approximately 100 acres, also took issue with the court.
“I think the court works very hard to try and salvage the Highlands master plan in the face of what appears to be open noncompliance by the Highlands Commission with its statutory mandate,’’ Eisdorfer said.
He said the master plan was to have included a working plan for property owners to transfer development rights. “It didn’t, it doesn’t, and I think the court is saying it would be really hard for them to do, and we are going to suppose the Legislature didn’t really mean what it said.’’
Today’s appeal had less urgency for his clients than possibly for other builders, he said. They had a partially completed project in the Highlands preservation area that was halted when the Highlands Act took effect but a previous opinion allowed them to proceed.
Still, overall, “There are lots of properties that have been rendered valueless,” he said. What was lost, Eisdorfer said, is a significant piece of what was supposed to make the Act fair.