Josh Bauers has long had his sights set on the town dump in Millburn.

Bauers wants to put 75 affordable apartments on the site where piles of Styrofoam and food scraps lie in heaps.

But that’s a bridge too far for many residents of New Jersey’s richest ZIP code, Short Hills, where multimillion dollar Tudor and colonial-style mansions are perched atop grassy hillocks less than an hour’s commute from Manhattan. 

Many in the community, favored by finance types and lawyers, are up in arms over the development’s potential effect on the environment and its highly-rated schools. But the years-long fight to put affordable housing in the town has become about far more than that, and has raised accusations over inequality and race. 

Millburn Township, whose largest community is Short Hills, may be forced to build on the dump after a state court ruled last month that it will decide where the development will go. The town had agreed to build on the polluted site three years ago, only to backtrack. 

“We’ve been involved in affordable housing litigation with Millburn since 2018,” said Bauers, attorney for Fair Share Housing Center, which fought the town in court to force compliance with the state’s affordable housing laws. “They are very much behind the eight ball because of their own doing.”

Millburn, like much of the tri-state area, is in the grips of a housing shortage, with New Jersey alone struggling to reverse a deficit of 224,000 residences. Short Hills’ median home value has risen almost 50% in the past four years to $2 million, and only 30 properties are on the market for a population of about 14,500. That’s made it particularly hard for anyone not working on Wall Street to buy a house, never mind nurses, cops and teachers.

While New Jersey has more provisions than New York to build affordable housing thanks to a series of court decisions stretching back almost 50 years, the rules have historically been challenged by local authorities seeking to slow down, minimize or block the process. That’s where Bauers’ group comes in, fighting in court with dozens of the state’s 564 municipalities. 

The battles have stretched from Cherry Hill in the 1990s to Englewood Cliffs more recently. Few have put up a fight quite like Millburn, he said, where only 38 of more than 1,300 units mandated by state law have been built.

The town’s deputy mayor, Frank Saccomandi, who works at Manhattan-based hedge fund Tilden Park Capital Management, and local lawmaker Ben Stoller, who runs a supply-chain logistics firm, were voted into office last year to oppose what they call overdevelopment. 

“The soul of Millburn is at risk,” their campaign website reads. “Long-term, will our schools remain top-ranked in New Jersey? And if not, what will happen to property values?” 

The township says it’s not opposed to the 75 units, but wants to move them to two other areas of the downtown, arguing the dump site is contaminated with mercury and lacks enough road access to prevent major traffic congestion. Millburn Middle School is right up the block.

The town’s proposal would mix the affordable income units with slightly higher-income apartments for government workers who are priced out of Millburn but who make more than the 80% of the area median income required to live in affordable housing.

“I oppose the 75-unit dump project because it would be 100% income segregated,” Saccomandi said in an interview. “Rather than promoting empathy and understanding, this would only further isolate and marginalize an already underserved community. Affordable housing should be done in an inclusive manner so that individuals of different socioeconomic backgrounds can benefit from living amongst one another.”

If the plan goes forward, Saccomandi said the town would be responsible for cleaning up the dump and relocating its public works department—at a projected cost of “tens of millions of dollars”—before selling the site to the developer for $1. This would take longer than what the town is proposing and leave it vulnerable to environmental claims down the road, he said.

Bauers said the proposal is just another excuse by the town to drag its feet, a pattern he’s seen in other wealthy areas where affordable housing has raised issues of race and class. The cleanup would cost far less than what the town projects, he said.

RPM Development Group, a New Jersey-based developer that’s set to build on the dump site, didn’t reply to a request seeking comment. 

New Jersey Superior Court Judge Cynthia Santomauro ruled on April 9 that Millburn acted in “bad faith” by refusing to move forward with the affordable housing site, and appointed a special master to decide by June 1 where the 75 units will go. The judge also revoked the town’s immunity from lawsuits that developers deploy to force property rezoning in exchange for setting aside affordable units. 

‘Busting Out’
Short Hills was founded in the late 1800s by Stewart Hartshorn, a businessman who sought an ideal town where “natural beauty would not be destroyed by real estate developments, and where people of congenial tastes could dwell together.”

A chief concern expressed by some residents is that more homes would swell classroom sizes at their top-tier public schools, including Millburn High School. The school—whose alumni include actress Anne Hathaway and fashion designer Rachel Zoe—recorded the highest average SAT scores statewide last year.  

For Jill Port, it doesn’t matter where affordable housing goes, the result will be the same.

“It’s going to be nuts,” said Port, who was picking up her 16-year-old daughter from Millburn High, where she once attended. When she graduated, there were 200 seniors. “Now it’s busting out at 400.”

Several other residents said they were worried more housing could change the sleepy quality of the town or bring more crime, but didn’t want their names in the media discussing views they said were controversial. 

Still, not all the town is opposed.

The arguments against the dump site are “completely disingenuous,” said Cate Smith, a Millburn resident who tutors high school students for the SATs. “They kicked the can down the road for so long that this is where we ended up.”

This article was provided by Bloomberg News.