HOWELL — Mayor William Gotto isn’t happy about “absolutely disgusting” comments he said were made on social media about a controversial affordable housing project owned by an Orthodox Jewish group.
In fact, he made his disdain publicly known when he bemoaned at a council meeting on Nov. 9 and in a subsequent letter to residents, riling them even more.
Last month, the planning board unanimously approved the preliminary major site plan for a 72-unit affordable housing project. The complex, encompassing 27 acres just west of Route 9, will be owned by the Rabbinical Seminary of America, a national Orthodox nonprofit organization.
The project, funded by a mix of affordable housing tax credits and Hurricane Sandy recovery money, has created a groundswell of public backlash evident on several community Facebook pages.
At the Nov. 9 council meeting, Gotto said he was “absolutely disgusted” by some of the remarks made on social media by residents.
“What I don’t get, as a community, the level of discourse that has arisen in a very short period of time with some of the absolutely disgusting, anti-Semitic, racial, class separating comments that I’ve seen by so many residents of this town, predominantly on social media,” Gotto said.
“It’s not just a small group of people that are doing it anymore,” he continued, “it’s a growing number of people.”
Gotto affirmed those feelings in a phone interview with NJ Advance Media on Monday.
“There’s been a couple issues that have had some overtones to them over the past year or so,” he said. “And when this particular affordable housing project came up, it kind of accelerated to a high that kind of caught me off guard.”
Gotto said some people in the community have drawn conclusions from inaccurate information spread on social media.
“I think some people connected some dots that aren’t factually true,” he said. “The aggravating thing about this application, other than it being a property owned by a rabbi, there were no connections to Lakewood (or) Orthodox (Jews) – there were no dots to connect.”
In a statement posted on one of the community Facebook pages, Howell Happenings NJ, the administrators addressed the mayor’s accusations, referring to them as “slander” and “false.”
“All we can ask is that you personally scroll back and take a look at the real contents of this page and to follow it in the future and make a judgment for yourselves on what HHNJ actually represents to Howell,” the statement reads.
Lakewood, which has a large Orthodox Jewish population, borders Howell Township to the south.
While some commenters have expressed concerns of the Lakewood’s demographic makeup spreading to Howell (“Because they can walk to the new Yeshiva being built on Ridge Road. Talk about dangerous,” one resident wrote), others have noted that they fear the same growth boom Lakewood has experienced.
“Lakewood tripled in size in 15 years and has now started pushing back,” one commenter wrote. “Petitions have been circulating in Lakewood to stop more building. … Lakewood has seemed to find a tipping point. How far will Howell go?”
Since the project, known as the Howell Family Apartments, will be partially funded by Hurricane Sandy recovery money, residents in Howell still displaced from their homes as a result of the hurricane will get first crack at claiming the units.
Residents have expressed concerns at meetings about the need for Hurricane Sandy housing relief for residents of the inland township — which Gotto said is a legitimate concern.
“But it’s not within the control of municipal officials,” he said.
The residential complex would include nine separate two-story buildings of one-, two- and three-bedroom units, an office, a maintenance garage, parking lots and a basketball court.
The property is being developed Barnegat-based developer the Walters Group. Officials said deed restrictions prevented the group from purchasing the property outright, so it signed a 55-year lease with the Rabbinical Seminary after which it will be able to own it outright.
Gotto said the township had three or four options, but going with the Walters Group gave them the most affordable housing credits.
“It had only to do with one thing, the amount of credits we were able to get, because it was a two-to-one credit,” Gotto said.
But the community, Gotto said, chose to ignore the facts and clamp onto misconceptions spread on Facebook.
“People chose not to listen to it and gravitate towards the sensationalism and not the facts,” he said. “We deal with these issues all the time, this isn’t new to us.”
He said in an open letter to the public that elected officials have a “moral, ethical and legal responsibility to provide factually correct information.”
“Unfortunately, social media is not held to the same standard,” the letter states.
Still, Gotto encourages residents to attend the township’s meetings and have an open dialogue with elected officials.
But the letter, which did not address specific Facebook pages, infuriated some residents who felt it was an attempt to infringe on their right to free speech.
“HHNJ is the best (at) keeping us informed and everyone has freedom of speech and can form their own opinions,” one commenter on the page wrote. “Thank you for keeping us informed!”