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Court stays suspension of affordable-housing laws

By Maya Rao
Inquirer Staff Writer

Gov. Christie's 90-day suspension of New Jersey's affordable-housing regulations has been lifted temporarily under a stay granted by the Appellate Division of Superior Court.

Judge Stephen Skillman yesterday granted a motion by the Fair Share Housing Center to stay the section of a Feb. 9 executive order that banned the Council on Affordable Housing from enforcing its rules for 90 days while a five-member task force develops recommendations on state policies for providing affordable housing.

The court will make a final decision after hearing oral arguments March 16.

Within hours of Christie's order, the center filed an appeal claiming a violation of separation of powers that went far beyond the governor's limited role in COAH, which was created by the Fair Housing Act in 1985 to enforce Supreme Court rulings that towns have a constitutional obligation to provide low- and moderate-income housing.

Legal papers filed by the center called Christie's move "a sweeping assertion of executive power" that "sets a dangerous precedent for the entire operation of state government."

"I think this is a recognition that what Gov. Christie has been trying to do in governing by executive order is out of the norm with past governors, both Democrats and Republicans, in New Jersey and is not consistent with our constitution and our laws," said Adam Gordon, an attorney for the Cherry Hill-based Fair Share Housing Center.

The governor's office did not return a message seeking comment yesterday.

Sharing the view of many local officials, Christie's executive order called state affordable-housing procedures "excessively complex and unworkable, resulting in delays, inefficiencies, litigation, and unreasonable costs to municipalities and the private sector without appreciable progress being made for our citizens."

COAH calculates the "fair share" of housing each town must provide. Municipalities that file plans with the council for how they will meet those requirements are protected from lawsuits by developers to force higher-density building.

The stay does not affect the task force, created under the executive order to assess the effects of New Jersey's affordable-housing regulations and their degree of success in meeting obligations under the Supreme Court rulings of 1975 and 1983, known as the Mount Laurel decisions.

Bill Dressel, executive director of the New Jersey League of Municipalities, expressed surprise at the stay.

His organization is awaiting a decision on a legal challenge it filed on behalf of many towns to the latest round of COAH rules in 2008, and Dressel said the league's attorneys were not told they could have filed a response to the Fair Share Housing Center filing.

"We think it was very reasonable for a newly elected governor to be able to do a review of what has transpired in the legislative area, to take a fresh look at the regulations and to . . . take 90 days, as he referred to it, a time-out, and come up with a plan of action on how to address the problems with COAH," Dressel said.

The court denied other motions by the Fair Share Housing Center, including a request for an appointment of a special master to oversee COAH's operations and "ensure that there are not attempts to surreptitiously accomplish what the executive order aims illegally to do."

COAH, for its part, shares Christie's view: the council's board voted, 5-2, in support of Christie's executive order on Tuesday.




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