Affordable housing focus of Bedminster election

BEDMINSTER TWP. – The administration of the township’s affordable housing program has emerged as a key issue in a four-way contest for two seats on the Township Committee on Nov. 2.

Running for the three-year terms are Republican incumbents Larry Jacobs of Hillside Avenue, the current mayor, and Renee Mareski of Crestmont Road in The Hills.

They are challenged by Democrats Giuseppe Zaccagnini of Stone Run Road and Uttara Patla of Smoke Rise Lane, both residents of The Hills.

The four candidates were interviewed separately by this newspaper last week.

The Democrats, who are making their first bids for public office, say they want “a seat at the table’’ and offer fresh perspectives. The five-member committee is currently all Republican.

“I want to make sure there’s transparency and accountability,’’ said Patla, 52, a native of India who has lived in town for 22 years. “Change is good. We need a new set of eyes. I think there’s a few problems that need to be fixed.’’

A corporate communications professional for Prudential Financial, she has a master’s degree in education and communications from the University of Illinois.

Her running mate came to Peekskill, N.Y., from Italy as a teen-ager. A retired attorney and educator who has also worked and lived overseas, he has lived in Bedminster since 2016.

“I have valuable experience and career skills and a full international life,’’ Zaccagnini, 72, said. “I think those skills would be highly transferrable to the proper running of the store, the proper oversight of departments.’’

Jacobs and Mareski tout their experience as longtime volunteers and elected officials.

Jacobs, 57, an environmental attorney, was first elected in 2012 and is seeking his fifth term on the committee. He is in his third year as mayor, a post selected by his colleagues, and would like to remain at the helm.

He said the biggest challenge facing the township is “making sure our land use master plan is viable for the long-term.’’

A big issue will be ensuring the AT&T complex remains in use if the communications giant opts to leave town or downsize operations here. The township has already initiated studies in case that happens.

“AT&T is our biggest commercial ratable and also an employment center,’’ Jacobs said. “That building has been practically vacant since the beginning of Covid. We need to make sure we are situated for whatever comes to that site. If we can keep them there, that’s great, but we have to be a realist. I think we’re going to see a reduced presence by AT&T and want to be sure we have plans in place to put that property back in play as quick as possible.’’

Mareski, 61, is seeking her second term on the committee. She grew up in neighboring Bernards Township and is a 1977 graduate of Ridge High School. She’s lived in Bedminster for 24 years.

She previously chaired the township Environmental Commission. She works full-time as a purchasing agent for a wine distributor and also teaches adaptive horse-riding.

She had served as a representative to The Hills Village Master Association and is the only committee member currently living in the huge development. Mareski said her focus remains on the environment.

“I want to be able to continue to work on managing our resources, our parks, working with the Jacobus Vanderveer House, to make sure they stay in good working order,’’ she said.

She said the all-Republican committee represents all township residents.

“None of our ideas or issues fall into conservative or liberal categories,’’ she said. “They’re resident issues. What can we do, what can we do to take care of our Bedminster residents.’’

Jacobs and Mareski both volunteer regularly at the township’s Farmers Market on Saturday mornings.

The challengers have not served on any municipal boards or committees in town, but said they’ve heard from other Democrats here who claim they were blocked from appointments by the GOP.

“We asked for the opportunity to submit a name and the mayor basically just brushed us off, saying they already had a short list,’’ Zaccagnini said.

“I love this town and think I can contribute a lot with a pair of fresh eyes and new ideas,’’ he added. “My experience spans a lot of time and many places of the world. My lack of direct experience with town governance is more than made up for by the skill sets which I consider transferable. Hopefully we make the headway and get a seat at the table.’’

He said that he “acquired professional experience from governance of large corporations’’ and doing extensive contract work as an attorney.

“There’s not a lot to complain about,’’ Patla said about the town, saying she considers it a “privilege’’ to live here. “But you do you need to have multiple perspectives. A lot of what we’re seeing that goes on, there’s not a lot of challenging. You have to have diverse voices around that table. That would be very important for the town.’’

Affordable Housing

The most divisive issue discussed involves affordable housing.

The Democratic challengers say the incumbents lacked proper oversight over the resale of affordable units, allowing some 30 rentals to lose their affordable status. This resulted in the need to rezone property to allow for replacement low-cost rentals to meet state requirements.

“As I understand it, Jacobs and Mareski, both board members of BHHS (Bedminster Hills Housing Corp.), basically dropped the ball,’’ said Zaccagnini. “All of this would not have been necessary had they provided the appropriate oversight as board members.’’

He said the “Main Street monstrosity’’ under construction on Lamington Road and another major housing project “in the pipeline’’ on Route 202-206 at Burnt Mills Road will cause a future “traffic congestion nightmare.’’

Zaccagnini said the township could have negotiated for an extension of affordability requirements with the owner of multiple rental units to keep them off the market, but failed to act.

“We would have avoided having a shortage on the rental side,’’ he said.

The incumbents defended their record, saying they have taken the necessary steps to replace the BHHC – which for years handled low-cost home sales here – with a more professional administrative agency that manages affordable housing resales for dozens of state municipalities.

Jacobs said the challengers are “ignorant’’ of the complicated legal issues involving affordable housing and are being misled by individuals with personal financial interests.

“I don’t believe our opponents are educated on the workings of the affordable housing program,’’ he said. “We’ve seen this before. They pick up an issue and are so desperate to find some fault with the Township Committee that they’re not willing to do the due diligence from their sources.

“We know who is behind this and their motivation is not pure,’’ he added, “people whose motivations are not in furtherance of the affordable housing program.’’

Jacobs said when he first joined the BHHC board as mayor, he learned that “the opportunities for self dealing and conflicts of interest were rampant.’’

As an example, he played back a recorded phone message left to the BHHC from a real estate broker who informed that he had a buyer for an affordable unit. He had worked out a deal, the broker said, and was seeking an application form.

Jacobs said that’s not how the affordable housing program is supposed to work.

“You’re supposed to have a waiting list,’’ he said. “It’s not cherry picking, who gets access to affordable housing.’’

He detailed several other actions involving the BHHC that he said were questionable, including approval of grants made directly to homeowner associations in The Hills.

He said he also learned the BHHC “was spending legal money to go to the foreclosure and using the affordable housing money to buy units at the auction, buying them, and if they needed repair they’d fix them back up.

“I said it didn’t make sense,’’ he said. “You’re spending money on lawyers and doing all this work and selling them at a loss.’’

Another major snafu led to the eventual termination of the BHHC, and ongoing litigation against its attorney.

Jacobs said that when 30-year affordability requirements were expiring on hundreds of Hills units, the BHHC attorney incorrectly informed the agency that the homeowners were not required to pay a “recapture fee’’ back to the affordable program when the homes were sold.

“It seemed inconsistent with the whole mission of affordable housing to me,’’ he said. “No money coming back to the affordable housing program.’’

He called it a “total windfall’’ for the owners of income-restricted homes to sell them and profit.

About a year later the BHHS learned that the owners were actually required to pay the fee. But in the meantime, numerous sales transactions occurred without the fee being collected.

Jacobs he said some members of the BHHC didn’t want to take action to get the money.

“Now we’ve got board members saying we can’t go after anyone, we have to let everyone go,’’ he said. “I’m sitting there as the mayor, I’m responsible, along with the Township Committee, for the affordable housing program to maintain the integrity and the vitality for the affordable housing program, and I’ve got a board that was ready to let it go.’’

He said recapture fee applied to about 600 homes overall.

“I have an obligation to make sure we have the funds available to be deployed appropriately,’’ he said. “Folks on the board who owned units or were otherwise involved in those transactions do nothing and now my blood is boiling.’’

He said he told the group he would recommend the Township Committee terminate BHHC as the administrative agent if no action was taken. “You are not going to jeopardize the affordable housing program because you don’t want to pay your 20 percent recapture,’’ he said.

The committee ultimately went out to bid and replaced with BHHC with CGP&H, LLC, which on its website claims to be “the only full service affordable housing implementation company in New Jersey.’’

Jacobs and Mareski say the change has worked out well.

“They are working out fantastic,’’ Mareski said. “It’s a complicated process, qualifying homeowners. They have a lot of experience and are handling it in a fair and equitable manner.’’

Jacobs said there is now a long waiting list for Bedminster affordable homes.

But Zaccagnini said the new management company has problems.

“Their presence is scarce,’’ he said. “You can not reach a human being on phone.’’

Jacobs denied that there was a realistic opportunity to negotiate with the owner of numerous affordable rentals to keep them off the market, saying the owner wanted millions of dollars that the township didn’t have.

He also defended the township’s rezoning of land in Pluckemin Village for a 160-unit housing development that will include 24 affordable rental units.

The project would be built on the south side of Burnt Mills Road between the Chase Bank and Pluckemin Schoolhouse Park.

Jacobs said the project was “put in the right spot’’ and would “improve the commercial and retail experience in Pluckemin.’’

He also said that if built, the developer “has the obligation to improve the traffic’’ at no expense to taxpayers.

The challengers raised no budgetary issues during the interviews.

Mareski noted that there was “no raise in our taxes this year.

“The Township Committee did an amazing job the last two years,’’ she said, noting that the focus was on issues involving Covid and employment. “This continues to be our focus. Our residents come first. We do try to make our pennies squeak.’’

Jacobs said he gets “satisfaction knowing that Bedminster remains a place where folks are happy and proud.’’

“They appreciate the efforts we have been undertaking.’’ he said.

But the challengers say another perspective is needed in the local government.

“Having me involved in the decision-making process would be highly beneficial in providing the necessary checks and balance and accountability,’’ Zaccagnini said.

Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in The Bernardsville News.

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