BERKELEY HEIGHTS, NJ - Each week leading to the November 8 election, the candidates running for Berkeley Heights Township Council have the opportunity to answer question(s) that will be run in a series by TAPinto Berkeley Heights.

The following answers are from Democratic candidate Jill Zatta for Week 6.

Residents are still interested in your views on the Land Swap involving the Township selling the library to Little Flower Church and the Township purchase of the Hamilton Avenue property owned by Little Flower Church for a net cost of $2,845,000. 

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Do you agree with this "swap"? If you agree with the swap, please explain the benefits to the Township? If you don't agree with the "swap," explain why? 

As we have campaigned across Berkeley Heights, meeting with residents and connecting with the community, Stephen and I are sometimes asked what our position is on the “Swap”. Unlike the other questions we often hear - “what will you do to accelerate the road repair plan”, “how do you plan to attract more business to our downtown” - which are action-oriented and reveal an underlying knowledge of a particular situation, residents are largely posing the “Swap” question in order to better comprehend what this deal really means for the town. Unfortunately, complete understanding of this situation evades most of us.

In its purest definition, the “Swap” should be understood as the land exchange between the township and Little Flower Church. In this transaction, Berkeley Heights will receive the church’s Roosevelt Avenue campus in return for the Public Library site, plus an additional $2.8M to make the exchange equal. The town will then sell its newly acquired property to a developer to create new housing units, some of which will go towards our affordable housing commitment. This is the “Swap”. However, the colloquial understanding of the “Swap” also includes the new Municipal Complex, which is the redevelopment of the current Town Hall property on Park Avenue to build a new Town Hall, Community Center, Public Library, and Police Station. These are two separate projects, but are often thought of as one. A small dotted line does exist: the revenue from the sale of Roosevelt Avenue will be used to offset the costs of the Municipal Complex, which is expected to cost $27M - $28M.

These are both high ticket investments for Berkeley Heights. Since Stephen and I have never sat on Council, we will make it a top priority to review all of the public and private legal and financial details of the initiatives. We have not been involved with the intricate and nuanced particulars of these deals, but we more than understand the perception both projects carry with the general public - let’s not forget we’re residents, too, and we share your concerns.

Stephen and I have considered what voting for or against looks like based on the information we all currently have. Say we unequivocally support the projects, we could be plunging the town into a deal of debt and broken promises if the initiative hasn’t been scoped with the right resources and oversight. If we were to come out against these projects, we could be seriously jeopardizing our affordable housing commitment, forcing the town back into costly litigation (again!) with developers and state activists. We would be stuck with a decaying Town Hall, an officially unsafe police station, a library with plumbing issues that is not ADA compliant, and a community center that is a former garage (not that anyone couldn’t tell). Not updating our municipal facilities would be counterintuitive to the efforts Berkeley Heights is trying to make with our public parks and downtown business district. As I have discussed with residents, the concept of “place and space” is of utmost importance in community building. The right physical environments foster connections that have deep, tangible implications for the vibrancy and relevancy of a town.

In these ways, it would be questionable to take an unwavering position for, or against, the “Swap” prior to assuming office. We, like the rest of you, do not know all of the facts. It would be unfair to residents to promise one thing and then do another. What if the “Swap” is a sound deal but we championed its demise? What if we supported the “Swap” and we later learn the project will be an unjust burden on taxpayers? What would be objectively fair, should the plan go through, is to make sure the Library remains in business at its current site. Libraries are powerful vehicles for education and information - losing a library is potentially disastrous for a municipality.

Week over week, Stephen and I have demonstrated to you why we are the best team for Town Council. You have learned about our real plans to speed up road repairs, fix our fields, build out the downtown, and support this great community. And it is not just our position on the issues - we are committed to an open-minded, collaborative, transparent approach that puts you at the center of good governance and practical policy. I hope we have proven to you that we will not just be effective leaders, but effective communicators, opening up Town Hall to all voices and opinions.

Please vote Positively Berkeley Heights, Stephen Yellin & Jill Zatta on November 8th, Column A, Rows 7 and 8. Thank you for your consideration!

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed in the answer are the candidate's alone, and do not reflect the opinions of or anyone who works for is not responsible for the accuracy of any of the information supplied by the candidate.