2018 Reorganization Speech by Mayor Benjamin Smith
Tradition has it that the newly elected mayor looks back at the previous year and give some thoughts towards the new one. 2017 certainly was eventful for all of us. We saw John Broten and Sam Tropello complete their terms of office on this council and we saw John Albanese and Jonathan Heller run for office, win and are now seated up here on the dais.
A lot happened in the last year.
Too often in the news we hear the sad, and sometimes tragic deaths, of Township residents. To mention only a few:
- Walter “Bucky” Lance of East Whitehouse Fire after serving 71 years.
- Robert Motz of Whitehouse Fire after 25 years of service,
- Local resident Tim Piazza who needlessly died from alcohol overdose from a hazing incident at a Penn State fraternity.
- The recent suicide of a talented sophomore at Hunterdon Central.
- Thor Solberg, Junior, who with his sisters, managed the family business of Solberg Airport for 50 years--sometimes at peace with the Township and in more recent years in dispute. I recently read some minutes where in 1979 both he and Julia Allen served on the same volunteer sub-committee of the Planning Board for Open Space.
This committee started the year by budgeting for a larger-than-usual legal budget due to various pending cases and the experience of over expenditure the prior year.
Early in the year we saw the conclusion of the Waypointe group home issue. An issue that was resolved by a settlement instead of a trial.
Through most of the year, myself and Liz (Duffy) regularly met with the judge and opposing party on the damages phase of the sewer case that has dragged on for the better part of a decade. So far, we have been unable to find mutually agreeable terms, so that case had a one-day trial in December to determine the amount of legal fees to be awarded to the plaintiff. We are waiting on that decision. The damages phase is scheduled for 2018. I look forward to resolving this long-standing issue and putting it behind us.
Like every community in New Jersey, the Third Round Affordable Housing obligation has been held over our heads like the Sword of Damocles as the courts administer the failed COAH program. We previously joined with the other municipalities in Vicinage 13 to share the costs of legal counsel. We ended 2018 not much farther along in the case from where we started. We still do not have a court assigned number. Our immunity keeps getting extended and we are in regular contact with the court communicating and updating our plans.
In the spring, there was large community turnout with strong opinions expressed for and against the Nelson Street development. This project is moving forward on a long-term Township plan for affordable housing development in Whitehouse Station in a way to meet proposed numbers with the least impact to Readington. That project received preliminary planning board approval, was one of a handful of projects that won state funding, and is awaiting state DEP wetlands approvals.
The Township has also looked into potential areas for similar development near Three Bridges.
We have met with the land owners who have sued the Township as “interveners” in attempt to get their land developed partially as affordable housing and partially as full market rate. Those meetings are working towards seeing which suits can be settled and work with the affordable housing plans.
The Township has reached out to qualifying home owners in Hunters Crossing and in our mobile home parks to see if they would like to voluntarily participate in a program to be counted as affordable housing. If they accept, that would mean fewer court-mandated homes to be built.
The Solberg Airport eminent domain and zoning lawsuits continued to march on their way. The zoning case was resolved by payment of their legal fees and the Township choosing not to appeal that case. The eminent domain case, also known as the Armstrong ruling, was appealed by the Township Committee in 2016, but has been on hold since. It is waiting for an appeals court date. That case may be heard in 2018. Or 2019. In the last year I met once with Thor and once with the Solberg family to at least have a conversation. I remain hopeful that the Solberg family and the Township Committee can find a solution that meets all our needs.
By the end of the year we were a little surprised to find that only half of the budget for legal services was needed. The remainder was cancelled and set to surplus to be used in next year’s budget.
Another topic on many people’s minds was Merck’s former global headquarters. At the end of the year we were able to announce that Unicom Global had entered a contract to purchase the site and in a significant way working through due diligence. Their plan is to close sometime in the first quarter of this year. Nothing is done until the deal closes, but we are hopeful that this deal will be completed. I look forward to the jobs that Unicom can bring to Readington.
After what seems like a year of hearings, the QuickChek planned for the corner of US 22 and County Line Road received preliminary approval by the Board of Adjustment. Opinions varied, but to me it makes sense for a corporation headquartered in Readington to have a flagship store here and one on a major highway and cross road. I would have been disappointed if the application had failed, and then QuickChek decided to leave Readington.
The Planning Board and Township Committee also worked with Readington Farms for some creative zoning changes that both enabled them to start a critical expansion of their plant, in return for non-development of neighboring historic properties that they could have developed. This will maintain the rural character of that part of the Township.
The opioid epidemic continues to wreck a horrible toll on families. I have learned that many health care professional procedures for an unresponsive patient is to start with Narcan first and CPR second. We must find a solution to this epidemic.
Readington was awarded a H319 grant for storm water management education. 2017 saw the start of use of those funds with planning and start of the projects. We look to see more progress in 2018.
We also learned in 2017 of the threat to our Ash trees of the Emerald Ash Borer. Volunteers organized by the Open Space Advisory Board surveyed our roads to count the number of trees at risk in the right of ways. The Township Committee allocated funds for some mitigation.
On the open space front there was minor progress with the Township accepting a land donation off Dreahook road and a purchase on Round Mountain that better establishes a trail corridor.
This year some members of the community approached the Township Committee and asked if they could act as a Beautification Committee for downtown Whitehouse Station. We agreed. They have worked on landscaping and other ideas. This Christmas Eve, School Road and neighboring residents brought back the 30-plus year tradition of putting out luminaries. A second group of people, a flash mob if you will, independently put out luminaries on Main Street. I would like to see these traditions continue and to expand to other parts of Readington to include Old Highway 28, Stanton and Three Bridges. I look forward to a more formal and expanded Beatification Committee.
My vision for 2018 is to continue to bring long-term issues to conclusion. To navigate the shoals of affordable housing. To continue to defend our zoning. To work hard to control our debt, budget and taxes while maintaining the municipal services that people expect. To work with the old and new voices on this committee to meet the challenges that await us and keep Readington a great place to live. Shall we begin?