By JESSE WINTER
For The Leader/Times
WESTFIELD — The Westfield Town Council met in-person for the first time in more than 16 months since the global pandemic swept through Westfield and moved government meetings to an all-digital posture. Mayor Shelley Brindle greeted a sizable audience filling the benches inside the municipal court building during Tuesday’s meeting of the governing body, where the vast majority of attendees and officials were unmasked and all smiles as a mood of resiliency and a sense of normalcy permeated the night’s proceedings.
During the mayor’s opening remarks, she warned the audience that the dangers associated with Covid-19 are still real, bringing attention to a dangerous new variant of the virus, but applauded Westfield residents for their actions during an unprecedented time in the town’s history.
“On March 10, 2020, we could not have fathomed the need for a national Covid vaccination rollout,” said Mayor Brindle. “Today, Westfield’s vaccination rate is 68 percent for our entire population, 87 percent for those 18 and over, and 89 percent for those 65 and over. But more than anything else in the last 16 months, our community has demonstrated its compassion, humanity, and resilience, and I thank each of you for doing your part.”
On the legislative front, the town council passed on second and final reading an ordinance approving the Handler Redevelopment Plan. Council members Linda Habgood, Mark Parmelee, Scott Katz, Dawn Mackey, David Contract, Michael Dardia and James Boyes voted in favor of the ordinance. Mayor Brindle also voted in the affirmative, with Councilman Mark LoGrippo casting the lone dissenting vote.
“I think it’s a great concept; I’m just struggling with the way the process played out,” remarked Mr. LoGrippo ahead of the vote.
Mayor Brindle voiced her support for the Handler Redevelopment project, and REDI-farms as the name of the vertical hydroponic farm set to open shop at the old Handler location on North Avenue East near the border with Garwood.
“REDI-farms is only going to further burnish our reputation as an environmental and economic development leader by making Westfield an eco-destination in the region,” said Mayor Brindle.
On hand to witness the ordinance’s passage were the owners of REDI-farms, married couple Michele Modestino and Gregory Redington of REDCOM, a design and construction firm based in Westfield. Mr. Redington and Ms. Modestino reside in Westfield with their family.
Speaking to The Westfield Leader and The Scotch Plains-Fanwood Times after the meeting, Ms. Modestino and Mr. Redington said they were inspired by the documentary The Game Changers and its advocacy of vegetarianism and a plant-based dietary lifestyle. The documentary film inspired Mr. Redington to join his wife in becoming a vegetarian and got their entrepreneurial wheels turning during the pandemic when Ms. Modestino found it difficult to find high-quality, plant-based foods.
“And that’s when we came up with the idea to create a company that grew local fresh vegetables,” noted Mr. Redington. “It was just an idea until the Handler building came on the market and we were able to speak one-on-one with the owner.”
Ms. Modestino and Mr. Redington found the long-time owner of the Handler building, a graduate of the Rutgers School of Agriculture nearly 65 years ago, to be extremely receptive to the idea, they both noted, laying the groundwork for the sale of the Handler building. Mr. Redington said that he shook hands with the owner back in September 2020 and closed the deal in April of this year.
Jersey City and Hoboken were initial places of interest for the couple, but having a vertical hydroponic farm that will serve as a source of fresh, locally-grown vegetables for the community in Westfield was an outcome they are both very happy with.
“Going back, that’s been my dream as an architect, getting my hands on an old industrial building; we did it with the REDCOM building,” explained Ms. Modestino. “Doing it in our own backyard and saving a historic building is important to us.”
In more town council news, the governing body approved a resolution retaining the services of Spiezle Architectural Group of Hamilton ahead of a series of public-input meetings covering the multi-purpose fields projects at Edison Intermediate School.
At a June 15 town council meeting, a conceptual plan was outlined that would overhaul the Edison School Field and create multi-purpose fields over the existing two baseball diamonds and include LED lighting and more resilient turf fielding. Currently, Edison Field hosts varsity and junior varsity baseball, football and band practices – plus track and field activities – in addition to physical education classes. The proposed expansion of the facility to a multi-use field complex would add sport fields that include lacrosse, field hockey and soccer.
According to Spiezle Architectural Group, the multi-purpose fields and supplemental upgrades could cost up to approximately $18.2 million if all the features of the project are pursued.
Mayor Brindle stated during the meeting that the project is in its conceptual stage and will ultimately be shaped by public feedback.
Residents throughout Westfield have expressed both support for and opposition to the project. Those in favor endorse the project as a means to provide much-needed field space for the town’s sports, which often have to leave Westfield due to a playing-field shortage. Those in opposition have voiced concerns over the impact of the fields on the local Edison School-area community, citing issues such as parking and the impact of LED lights on the surrounding houses as topics of concern.
The first of a series of public-input meetings will be held on Wednesday, July 14, at 7 p.m., in the Edison parking lot. This first meeting is being billed as a “neighbors’ meeting.” The next meeting, open to the broader public, will take place on Wednesday, July 21, inside Edison School.
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