Get to Know Township Council Candidate Stephen Yellin (D): Week 6 Question on "Land Swap"

Stephen Yellin, Democratic Candidate for Berkeley Heights Township Council.

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 Stephen Yellin 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 someone who's been at virtually every Council meeting since the "Swap" discussions began over 3 years ago, I can speak to this issue with some authority.

The first thing that should be cleared up is that the "Swap" is actually 2 separate projects. The 1st is the exchange of property with Church of the Little Flower where we receive their Roosevelt Avenue campus in return for the Public Library site (and $2.8 million to make the exchange equal). We would then sell the Roosevelt Avenue site to a developer for housing units, helping defray the cost of the 2nd project: building a new Town Hall/Library/Police Station/Community Center next to the current Town Hall. The 2nd project is estimated to cost at least $27-$28 million.

I’ve had some concerns with how we got here. For example, 2 of the Council members were on the Little Flower Executive Board prior to joining the Council; the Council President should have recused herself from the get-go for this reason but did not do so until late 2015 – almost 3 years after the process started. Most of the contracts awarded for preparing the Redevelopment Plan were no-bid contracts; although the contractors are excellent at their work and rock-solid citizens of our town, it makes the process look seamy.

With all of that said, however, I also believe a project of this nature is way overdue. We've been stuck with a deteriorating Town Hall; a police station deemed unsafe to work in by the County Prosecutor 8 years ago; a 9/11 dispatch working out of a trailer; a library with poor heating/AC, in violation of the ADA, and with downstairs bathrooms that are permanently out of commission; and our seniors have to pay rent to Mt. Carmel just to have a weekly meeting. Our "Community Center" is the garage attached to Town Hall.

We can and must do better. Jill Zatta and I don't like denying people a referendum on this but the governing body’s decisions how to proceed in the last 3 years means it's too late to have one - we'd have to scrap the entire process and start all over again, and the consequences would be incalculable. For example, if Little Flower were to walk away from the agreement, we'd lose control over what to do with its property - something we've already pledged will be sold to a developer to help meet our affordable housing obligations. That could mean having our settlement reopened and a costly, potentially disastrous re-litigation with developers and affordable housing activist would commence.

That said, Jill and I recognize that a LOT of residents are suspicious and/or angry about our going forward with this. (This is why reaching out to people and getting their input as part of representing them is a big part of our platform.) Since neither of us have been on the Council, we want to take a look at the legal and financial details that haven't been released publicly (for contractual reasons) before making a final commitment to voting for the project. We owe it to the residents to do this. If the plan needs amending, we'll push for it; if not, we'll support it.

We would also favor placing a clause in the "Swap" agreement that requires Little Flower to allow the Public Library to remain in business at its current site, until the new Town Complex is ready to be moved into (about 1.5-2 years after construction begins). Jill and I don't want to risk what happened in Hillside, where their library permanently closed after being "temporarily" closed while construction began on a new Town Complex - the city's patrons just started going to nearby towns. The consequences of this would be equally incalculable.

This is the kind of open-minded, proactive thinking that makes Jill Zatta and me the best choice for the Positive Change our town needs. You’ve learned about our clear, achievable plans to fix our sports fields, roads, and downtown, and about our background, and why it makes us the most experience team for what the Township Council does. Just as importantly, we’ve heard from you – your questions, concerns and ideas for how we can make our great town even better. With your hands and your help, we can make the change we need while bringing new voices and values to Town Hall – ours.

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 TAPinto.net or anyone who works for TAPinto.net. TAPinto.net is not responsible for the accuracy of any of the information supplied by the candidate.

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