Mount Laurel and COAH – Another Round?

Monday November 30, 2009

The Sunday Edition of the Burlington County Times reported that Mount Laurel Township will once again challenge the regulations on its municipalities established by the state Council on Affordable Housing.

Mount Laurel and New Jersey’s attempts to increase affordable housing in the state have to be intertwined since

The first round, Southern Burlington County N.A.A.C.P. v. Township of Mount Laurel, 67 N.J. 151 (1975), attacked the system of land use regulation in place in the Township of Mount Laurel on the grounds that low and moderate income families were unlawfully excluded from the municipality. In the decision, the N.J. Supreme Court held that zoning ordinances, which make it physically and economically impossible to provide low and moderate-income housing, were unconstitutional.

The court’s decision left more questions than answers as to how to achieve the goal of affordable housing. As the state and municipalities attempted to comply with the decision of the court, officials became increasingly aware it would be difficult to implement an effective strategy to address the issue. Specifically, what was each municipality’s “fair share”?

The second Mount Laurel decision, South Burlington Count N.A.A.C.P. v. Township of Mount Laurel, 92 N.J. 158 (1983) was delivered eight years after Mount Laurel I. This decision, along with five other cases dealing with the questions raised by the first case became known as Mount Laurel II.

The ruling created a fair share formula to measure each municipality’s obligation to provide affordable housing, and by fashioning a “builder’s remedy” to compel municipalities to fulfill this obligation. The responsibility for working out the details of this decision was assigned by the Supreme Court to three specially designated trial judges who heard numerous cases between 1983 and 1986. In 1986 most of these cases would be transferred to the Council on Affordable Housing (COAH), created in 1985.

The most recent cases moving through the court system deal with a decision made by COAH in applying the “fair share” formula within the third round of COAH requirements. One of the keys to understanding the issue is to know what is meant by the “third round methodology”. COAH’s “third round methodology” for addressing municipalities’ Mount Laurel obligations covers the period from 2004 to 2018. The first round rules covered the period from 1987 through 1993, and the second round rules, covered the period from 1994 through 1999.
Mount Laurel is presently challenging the COAH rules which require their “fair share” of affordable housing to be escaladed from 226 to 1,421 units in this third round. Mount Laurel has until February 28, 2010 to submit a plan for how it intends to reach this lofty goal. Officials in Mount Laurel are challenging the requirements.

Mount Laurel, the League of Municipalities (on behalf of over 200 municipalities) and dozens of other municipalities just argued their challenge to the revised Third Round Regulations on December 1, 2009.  A decision is expected from the court within 90 days thereafter.  Governor Elect Chris Christie may also take action with respect to the current implementation of COAH’s regulations after he takes his oath of office on January 19, 2010.

COAH requirements are one of the most complicated and onerous requirements for local officials to keep up with. The numerous Mount Laurel cases, and rulings make it nearly impossible for even a full time public servant to keep up with the changes and potential changes of COAH. One of the most prudent decisions a municipality can make is to hire an experienced COAH Counsel to stay compliant and in many cases in front of the curve regarding potential changes. If you have questions about COAH and its impact on your municipality, sound legal counsel is your biggest asset to navigating the ever-changing landscape of COAH.

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