Westfield, Mountainside, Berkeley Heights, Scotch Plains, Fanwood, Union County, NJ - February 14, 2002

Governing Body Becomes Redevelopment Agency
Council Persists Grappling With Ward Lawsuit Case
By NANCY CROSTA LANDALE

The Westfield Town Council took several actions at its February 13 meeting, including establishing itself as the Westfield Redevelopment Agency, encountered further involvement in the Ward lawsuit, and passed an amended temporary budget of $6,436,682 for the first quarter.

Officials also approved an increase in the contract for construction work at Tamaques Park and tabled a proposed “no smoking” ordinance. The council additionally heard a presentation for a proposed September 11 memorial and listened to public discussion advocating front porch exemption from property coverage limitations.

The Town Council took a major step as it passed a resolution establishing the Town of Westfield Redevelopment Agency and designating the governing body as the Redevelopment Agency per state statute.

By becoming a redevelopment agency, the town is now able to take direct development action, such as in land and buildings development. This includes co-development initiatives envisioned for parking decks, businesses and related dwellings.

Also during the meeting, concern was raised over the town’s involvement in the Ward Commission suit, an action pending in New Jersey Superior Court challenging the 2001 redrawing of Westfield’s ward boundaries.

Amid much discourse and controversy, the council passed a resolution at its regular meeting on January 29 for the town to intervene in the suit. The resolution directed the town to retain a separate attorney, Ronald J. Riccio of Morristown’s McElroy, Deutsch and Mulvaney, at a capped fee of $17,500.

In discussions last week among governing body members immediately prior to the public portion of the regular meeting, Mayor Gregory McDermott advised that Town Clerk Bernard Heeney had received a letter from Lum, Danzis, Drasco, Positan and Kleinberg, LLC, counsel for the Westfield Ward Commission, confirming the firm’s retention.

The letter was accompanied by a resolution appropriating funds to pay the Lum firm for the Westfield Ward Commission’s legal expenses in the Ward Commission suit.

After reviewing and discussing the proposed resolution, the Mayor and council members decided not to vote on the resolution and to direct further inquiry to the Lum firm.

Resident and Westfield Republican Campaign Chairman Victor Trzesniowski reminded the council that two weeks prior, it passed a resolution indicating that time was “of the essence” regarding the retention of an independent attorney to intervene in the suit on Westfield’s behalf.

Noting that, as of Tuesday, there had been no notice of appearance filed by the appointed attorney, Mr. Trzesniowski asked, “If the matter was of such imminent concern and so pressing in nature that the council was denied the right to review even the attorney’s curriculum vitae, why has not a notice of appearance been filed, and where do we stand in terms of the sense of urgency (Third Ward Councilman) Kevin Walsh spoke of?”

Recalling the assertion that the matter was not a political issue, Mr. Trzesniowski noted that the February 8 Star-Ledger quoted both former Westfield Mayor Thomas Jardim, who represents the plaintiffs in the Ward Commission suit, and Councilman Walsh as stating that the redrawing of the wards, “will have a negative impact on Democratic votes in the Third Ward.”

Mr. Trzesniowski concluded by saying, “I’m just really confused, Mayor.” Neither Mayor McDermott nor any member of the council responded.

Resident and former Third Ward Councilman Neil Sullivan observed that the council’s actions to date have committed it to spending money on legal fees to both sue and defend itself.

Challenging Councilman Walsh, Mr. Sullivan asked, “If the issue truly is representation and not votes, why not consider eight, single-member districts instead of four dual-member districts? Is there any interest in making an amendment to the town charter to make eight-member districts?”

In response, Mr. Walsh asked Mr. Sullivan to prepare a detailed proposition for consideration. The Mayor added, “It would be interesting to see how to change the ward system. Present it to us; we’re making no promises, but we’ll at least look at it.”

Second Ward Councilman Rafael Betancourt added, “I have an open mind to considering this, but I don’t view these times as appropriate. We have to wait and see what happens with the litigation and what develops.”

In response, Mr. Sullivan suggested, “What about holding a referendum and letting the people of Westfield speak?” Mr. Betancourt replied, “I agree. It’s better to spend money on resolving social issues, but I am a minority here, and in more than one way.”

Under other business, a resolution for an Amended Temporary Budget also was passed. The Local Budget Act requires a temporary budget be established when payments or commitments are made before final adoption of the current year’s budget.

Accordingly, the resolution provides for appropriations in the sum of $6,436,682, representing approximately a quarter of the appropriations in the 2001 budget.

The amendment called for in the resolution concerns an increase of the appropriation for the Alliance on Alcoholism and Drug Abuse.

A resolution was passed increasing the contract price paid to Suburban Building Co., LLC, for the construction of a new restroom at Tamaques Park, by $14,559.30, to $134,059.30.

As previously reported, the council was to consider an ordinance regulating smoking at the Memorial Pool complex.

Because the draft ordinance also contained a provision allowing private establishments to prohibit smoking and the provision had not been subject to full discussion among the council, further consideration of the ordinance was tabled until after the governing body’s next conference session.

With reference to the provision, Fourth Ward Councilman Lawrence Goldman commented, “There should be language in the ordinance regarding allowing other establishments to make a determination whether they want to apply. Also, there should be more language in the preamble of the ordinance (to indicate the presence of the provision),” he said.

Second Ward Councilman Matthew Albano remarked, “This doesn’t pass the ‘sniff’ test. It’s trying to impose penalties for conduct at private establishments.”

Mayor McDermott then suggested the ordinance be set aside for further discussion.

The newly formed September 11th Memorial Park Committee detailed plans for the construction of a memorial on public property donated by the town. Former Fourth Ward Council member Janis Fried Weinstein is leading the project. After the terrorist attacks of September 11, Mrs. Weinstein suggested a memorial be erected on town property to honor Westfielders who lost their lives in the tragedy.

The site is located at North Avenue and East Broad Street, near the First Union Bank, in a small park adjacent to an area known as The Plaza, where train commuters pass by. Since the attacks, the area has been electrified to illuminate an American flag donated by Mrs. Weinstein.

As detailed by committee members Craig Stock and Mark Fishbeck, a circular walkway, rock garden and seating area will be constructed around a central monument. The monument will be approximately eight to 10 feet tall, likely made of rough-cut granite and topped by a frosted glass plaque inscribed with the victims’ names. The plaque will be lit for night visibility and to create a spiritual tone.

“We asked how we could convey a message of both tragedy and hope; a message specific to September 11, yet universal to all who have made sacrifices for our country,” said Mr. Fishbeck.

“We wanted to make an individual statement, but one that galvanizes the community and how it feels about the event. We therefore carved out this portion of Westfield as a gateway site to the town for commuters, passengers and passersby,” he added.

There are no cost projections at this time, but it is expected that the Westfield Jaycees and Rotary will provide assistance with labor and fundraising. Donations of materials and labor from individuals and companies are being sought, and a kick-off concert/fundraiser is planned for Saturday, April 6, at Westfield High School.

According to Mr. Stock, building should begin during the summer months, with the intention of dedicating the site by the one-year anniversary of the attacks.

Town Administrator James Gildea noted that since the site includes “Green Acres” designated land, he and Town Attorney Robert Cockren will determine any obligations concerning dedication and development of the land, as well as acceptance and use of funds for the purposes intended.

According to Mrs. Weinstein, the committee is a non-profit corporation. Donations for the memorial are being solicited.

During the public comment section of the meeting, resident and former Westfield Councilman Anthony LaPorta discussed a proposal, spearheaded by Harrison Avenue resident Karrie Hanson, for front porches to be exempted from property coverage limitations so that residents with porches can more readily incorporate additions to their homes.

Currently, for the majority of town properties, an owner may have up to 20 percent of the lot covered by structures. A standard back deck may occupy an additional 2 percent of the lot. Under the proposal, the coverage limitation would increase from 20 percent to 28 percent for homes with unheated, roofed, open porches.

Urging the council to support the proposal and “move it along,” Mr. LaPorta said, “The Planning Board voted unanimously for this proposal in 1998. The matter was sent to the Board of Adjustment then. Whatever happened thereafter is not known…This has been going on since 1998 and it’s time to move on.”

Ms. Hanson added, “Porches are a social device. They bring people to the front of their houses. They have an amazing effect on the cohesiveness of the community.”

She cited instances of “distributed parenting,” stemming from parents seeing neighborhood children from their porches, as well as more caring attitudes toward the elderly in her neighborhood.

“We don’t want to pave over Westfield, but we also don’t want to lose the social, historical effect of porches,” she commented.

In supporting the proposal, Ms. Hanson emphasized her work with the former town zoning officer and review of zoning laws in similar towns. She also noted the “checks” built into the proposal in the form of width and square footage limitations and the maintenance of side and front yard variance rules.

Mayor McDermott advised that Mr. Cockren will determine the status of the Board of Adjustment’s deliberations. First Ward Councilman Carl Salisbury noted that the Board of Adjustment’s recent Annual Report addresses the porch issue.

Department budget hearings followed the meeting. According to Mr. Gildea, all budget hearings will be concluded this month and a summary comparing the 2001 and 2002 budgets will be made available shortly thereafter.

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