By JESSE WINTER
For The Westfield Leader
WESTFIELD — In the wake of the devastating flooding damage Hurricane Ida wreaked on Union County and storm-water infrastructures throughout the county, Westfield is wasting no time formulating plans to prepare the town for the next major weather event.
Storms like Ida, which struck New Jersey on September 1, represent a major challenge for New Jersey’s municipalities. Catastrophic storms like Ida, Hurricane Irene and Superstorm Sandy are no longer once-in-a-lifetime weather events, but are the new reality for New Jerseyans. During the Westfield Town Council meeting held on Tuesday, Mayor Shelley Brindle announced that the town will form the Westfield Infrastructure Resiliency Committee (WIRC).
The new committee “will be tasked with assessing our current town-wide storm-water infrastructure and its capacity to handle these severe weather events in the future,” according to the mayor’s opening remarks at the council meeting. “Storm-water systems were simply overrun, not only in Westfield but around the state, with many towns suffering catastrophic losses. While this storm is far beyond what the average municipal drainage system is expected to handle, we have to act with urgency to fortify our infrastructure to manage the severity of storms that are happening more frequently.”
Mayor Brindle said the WIRC would examine “all contributing factors,” such as engineering, the town’s current zoning bylaws and construction practices and future town-wide development.
The mayor announced the WIRC would be co-chaired by Councilwoman and Finance Committee Chair Linda Habgood and Councilman and Public Works Committee Chair David Contract. Also included on the committee will be Town Administrator Jim Gildea, Director of Public Works Greg O’Neil, Town Planner Don Sammet, Town Engineer Dave Battaglia and Construction Official Frank Vuoso.
In total, according to the mayor’s address to the public on Tuesday, the region encompassing Westfield received 7.3 inches of rainfall, or 164 percent of an entire average month, in just 24 hours. More than four inches of rain fell in just two hours, between 7 and 9 p.m.
Mayor Brindle was not alone during Tuesday’s meeting in reacting to the damage caused by Ida. Janet Onishi of Knollwood Terrace, a neighborhood bordering Robinson Creek, addressed the governing body and fellow Westfielders during the public portion of the meeting.
“The evening of Wednesday, September the 1st, was a terrifying experience for many in our town and our local area,” said Ms. Onishi. “I hope you can set up a dialogue with residents most affected throughout town, because everybody is so traumatized,” she said. “We want information; please keep in contact with us.”
The mayor took time to react to public comment, much of which was related to her opening statements and the announcement of the WIRC.
“I think one thing we achieved a lot of consensus on tonight is climate change is real,” said Mayor Brindle. “I can only assure you, when we talk about infrastructure and the mission of this work group that we are putting together, it is all about talking to residents,” she explained. “It’s gone on far too long and now it’s got to the point where it’s urgent.”
In separate business, the town council took swift action in unanimously introducing an ordinance on first reading meant to penalize and curtail residents from renting out outdoor amenities such as pools after a resident on Carleton Road in recent weeks rented out their pool, causing significant disturbances to neighbors. The homeowner in question used the Swimply app, explained neighbors on Tuesday, allowing complete strangers to rent their pool by the hour.
“I’m one of the residents affected by the Swimply app and the pool,” said Lauren Kolaya of Carleton Road, addressing the mayor and council. “We’re disappointed something like this happened in such a nice, quiet neighborhood.” Ms. Kolaya went on to commend the mayor and council for their help.
Another neighbor, Lisa Friedman of Carleton Road, described the music from the house in question on Carleton Road as “ear-splitting” and described the experience of enduring the disturbances caused by the pool being rented as “torture.” Ms. Friedman also described people coming in and out of the pool in question as severely intoxicated.
“I wish it on no one, what we’ve endured,” said Ms. Friedman, who said neighbors were left with no choice but to contact the police and reach out to the governing body after the homeowner was not receptive to the pleas of neighbors.
Voting in favor were Mayor Brindle and the entire council, including James Boyes, Ms. Habgood, Michael Dardia, Mark Parmelee, Mr. Contract, Mark LoGrippo, Scott Katz and Dawn Mackey.
“We’re so glad we could address this,” said Mayor Brindle. “I don’t think ever, in a gazillion years, would we have contemplated people renting out their pools. Such is the world we live in, in the shared economy.”
In more news, the governing body took a significant step in combating anti-Semitism ahead of Yom Kippur by passing a resolution and introducing an ordinance meant to combat anti-Semitism.
While the resolution acknowledges “the growing problem of anti-Semitism in America,” the ordinance would amend the town’s code and increase the fines for bias crimes from $200 to $2,000.
Passage of the resolution and ordinance was unanimous.
“I think it’s important to all of us that this particular ordinance has been amended to increase the potential fine from $200 to $2,000,” said Councilman Dardia. “It speaks to the letter I submitted to the editor last week regarding the swastika that was etched into the playground at Mindowaskin. We certainly need to address intolerance that takes place in town and I think this is a step forward.”
In two pieces of town business, the governing body passed two special ordinances on final reading authorizing land sales to residents. The governing body was unanimous in passing both ordinances.
Special Ordinance No. 2222 authorizes the sale of undeveloped vacant property formerly known as Block 4001, Lot 93, 121 Myrtle Avenue, to Christian Olguin and Marie Zito for a price of $20,000, according to the ordinance. The sale, authorized by the ordinance, comes after the married couple petitioned the town. Mr. Olguin and Ms. Zito are contiguous property owners. The sold property measures 12,500 square feet and contains what was a town-owned storm drain swale running the length of the property, according to the ordinance.
Special Ordinance No. 2223 authorizes the sale of undeveloped vacant property formerly known as Block 2608, Lot 26.01, 650 Hort Street to Robert and Lisa Braddock for a price of $50,000. The Braddocks are contiguous property owners, according to the ordinance. The purchased property measures 8,570 square feet.
Westfield repealed in its entirety Section 8.06 (G) of the Westfield Land Use Ordinance. The repeal, which was authorized through an ordinance passed on second reading, unanimously, by the governing body, comes after a section of the ordinance was invalidated by former Superior Court Judge Karen Cassidy back in May.
The ruling came after Stuart and Charlene Schnitzer filed a lawsuit against the Town of Westfield and the planning board, alleging their proposed subdivision was conforming to the town’s zoning requirements and did not require a variance.
The next town council meeting is scheduled for Tuesday, September 28, with the regular meeting beginning at 8 p.m.
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