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Sale of Small Town Pond Reignites Affordable Housing Debate

Noe Pond Club in Chatham Township is slated to be sold. Photo by Michael Lovito

For many Americans, the summer of 2020 was a wash. The COVID-19 pandemic cancelled or postponed vacations, weddings, and graduations, and even if people were able to get outside and enjoy the sun, they did so six feet apart and in a mask. Thank goodness for the Noe Pond Club in Chatham Township, the one spot, it seemed, where summer was still on. Through the hard work of owners Kim and Chuck Barton and General Manager Kirk Warshaw, the club managed to keep its facilities open, providing its members with a place to swim, play tennis, and even stop by for a bite to eat. No matter how crazy the outside world had become, Chathamites could still retreat to their neighborhood oasis and forget about the world for a while. That was, until the cruelty and caprice of 2020 washed across Noe Pond’s shores.

On September 9th, a day after the Noe Pond Club closed for the fall and winter, members received a sudden email from the Bartons informing them that their days of enjoying an afternoon of tennis and swimming at the three and a half acre property may soon be numbered.

“We are writing to inform membership of continued unprecedented circumstances,” the email read. “We have received an unsolicited purchase offer for the Noe land from a very reputable developer. After painstaking thought, careful consideration, and considerable angst, we have accepted the offer. If the developer is satisfied with the review of the property this fall, closing is expected to occur in December or January. If the developer decides not to purchase the land, club operations are expected to continue.”

Lauren Petersen, a Chatham Township resident who’s been a member of the Noe Pond Club since 2018, said that the email left her feeling “sick.” “It was a total shock and out of the blue because there had been no rumors or any kind of rumblings going on all summer. We just thought things were, you know, going normally. And when we got it, we were just, like, shocked.”

Petersen said that it was the impersonal tone of the email as much as the possibility of the club closing that upset her.

“It’s been such a family centered place. We didn’t expect to receive such news in such a kind of cold way. So yeah, we were all taken aback. Even friends of mine and other members, we all just would text each other like, oh my god, can you believe this? So yeah, it was a dark day.”

The Noe Pond Club holds a special place in Petersen’s heart. When she and her husband, Todd, were looking to move out of Easton, Pennsylvania in 2017, the prospect of becoming a Noe member helped push them towards relocating to Chatham. She said that her family spends “every day there” in the summer, and that her four children learned how to swim through the Noe Summer Kid’s Program. Petersen took her concerns about the sale directly to the Township Committee’s September 10th Zoom meeting. When she got the chance to speak, she focused less on the disappointment of losing a hub of family fun and more on the environmental impact of developing the property.

“I can’t quite understand how that area could even be developed,” Petersen said.” I think it’s already zoned for some residential, but really the majority of the property I believe is swampland or wetlands. So I just really am concerned about the impact to the animals and the swamps and the stream that feeds behind there. I mean, at my own personal property in Chatham, half of our backyard is protected wetlands. So we can’t even put a fence post in there. All we’re allowed to do is just mow the lawn.”

The Bartons’ plans to sell the Noe Pond Club represents more than just the end of a historic family business founded in 1955 when Kim’s parents, Nancy Tasman Brower and Bailey Brower Jr., converted the onetime dairy farm into a recreational hub with a beachfront, tennis courts, and playgrounds. Instead, the sale has added fuel to a debate about rezoning and affordable housing that has gripped the small New Jersey town for nearly five years.

“I think that the concerns around that property are illustrative of a bigger problem, which is this affordable housing conundrum that we have as a town, as a community,” explained Phil Ankel, an attorney, Chatham resident, and Democratic candidate for the Township Committee.  “And that property and some of the speculation around it really brings some of the risk associated with different affordable housing strategies to the forefront.”

In 1983, the Supreme Court of New Jersey ruled that the state’s municipalities were constitutionally obligated to provide affordable housing options to potential residents. To meet this requirement, municipalities often times exercise eminent domain to seize property and build the required affordable housing units themselves. But local governments can also choose to fight this mandate, a strategy that Ankel calls “delay and litigate.” Chatham Township had pursued the delay and litigate strategy for much of the past five years before it reached a settlement in 2018 with housing rights organization the Fair Share Housing Center in which they agreed to meet their affordable housing obligations. This settlement also made the Township immune to a “builder’s remedy” lawsuit, which Ankel says would take the construction of affordable housing out of the town’s hands and grant control of it to a private developer. “It’s really, let’s say, a strong hammer in New Jersey that allows builders to go to court and essentially say, well, Chatham Township hasn’t been building their affordable housing, we’ll do it for them, we’ll do it here, and you, court, overturn Chatham’s zoning rules in order to allow us to build, let’s say, substantially larger developments than that community might want.”

So, what does that have to do with Noe Pond? Well, officially, nothing. But after the Township Committee voted to acquire the site of defunct steakhouse Charlie Brown’s Fresh Grill for the purposes of constructing affordable housing units, a local real estate developer called The Silverman Group filed a motion claiming that they were already under contract to purchase that land, as well as another, undisclosed property in Chatham. Ankel says that it’s a “commonly held view” that the other property in question is in fact Noe Pond, and that the Silverman Group plans to use a builder’s remedy argument to build more houses on the site than is currently allowed by Chatham’s zoning laws.

I reached out to the Bartons and to The Silverman Group to confirm whether or not the firm had, in fact, purchased the Noe Pond property, but neither party responded to my requests for comment. In fact, the only source I could find that tied The Silverman Group to Noe Pond was an article written about the firm’s challenge to Chatham’s purchase of the Charlie Brown’s by Ed Barmakian of TAPintoChatham, who refers to The Silverman Group’s purchase of the property as “alleged.”

The unconfirmed nature of The Silverman Group’s role in the sale hasn’t stopped Ankel and his running mate, Amee Shah, from making claims that The Silverman Group is trying to “force the Township to accept substantial development of the Noe Pond site” on their campaign’s website and in advertisements. Ankel and Shah’s Republican opponents, Mark Hamilton and Ashley Felice, have also come out against the Noe Pond sale and overdevelopment in a candidate statement in which they claim that the Democrats were ignoring the issue until it “came closer to their homes.” But while both campaigns have made opposition to the sale a key plank in their platforms, Ankel conceded that there is only so much local government can do. “I think it’s important to recognize that this is a private landowner, or owners, that want to sell their private property to somebody else. I think it’s unlikely that the Township would be in a position to stop the sale in that sense, and I don’t think anyone has suggested that’s on the table.” Instead, he said the primary role for the Township committee will be ensuring that the zoning on Noe Pond does not change.

Preventing the development of Noe Pond could very well be an animating issue for Chatham voters. Petersen is a registered Republican, but she did vote for a Democrat in the last Township Committee election, and she told me that “I don’t want to just vote party on this. I want to know who is really going to do something about it.” She said that she plans to meet with Felice to better understand the Republican ticket’s stance on the issue. “I just want to make sure that I’m making the choice for somebody who’s really going to take Noe seriously and not just, like, push it down the line.”

Petersen acknowledged that fretting about the sale of a private club is “a real first world problem,” but she still has a hard time accepting that when the lifeguards blew their whistles to close the pond on September 8th, they did so for the last time. “It’s just, it’s a very, very bittersweet, sad situation. I would say more bitter than sweet for sure. But hopefully, it’ll be there next summer for us to enjoy. I mean honestly, my hope is that the whole thing falls through.”