FLEMINGTON, NJ – A belief that it’s difficult to do business in Hunterdon has prompted county Economic Director Marc Saluk to get county freeholders to approve seeking a plan “for how to address these concerns” that could cost up to $50,000.
The county’s Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy “strongly indicated that a threat to Hunterdon County’s economic sustainability is its reputation of being difficult to do business in,” Saluk told the freeholders at their meeting Tuesday. “While this may or may not be true, perception is important ... that can impact the options we’ve got on projects in the future ... that can provide opportunity for our citizens.”
CEDS cites the county's aging and declining population, lower school enrollment, commercial vacancies and changing demographics as the need to attract more business, tourism and improved infrastructure.
An “evaluation of local processes” by a professional planner is a “natural first step so as to get a benchmark for how real or not this reputation is,” Saluk said, and “if so, what are reasonable and appropriate suggestions for how to address these concerns?”
Saluk said discussions he had with county municipal leaders last year “led to the conclusion that a pilot effort ... was the best approach to begin to address this concern.” The pilot study will examine Clinton and Clinton Township, who Saluk called “obvious partners” for the county-funded project.
The planner will examine “policies, procedures and ordinances” in each of the two municipalities to “make recommendations to better align those processes to support economic goals,” he said. The planner would also produce a “toolkit” for that other county municipalities could consider for themselves.
The pilot study has the support of township Mayor John Higgins and Clinton Mayor Janice Kovach.
Higgins, who served as Clinton Township’s Planning Board Chair for five years, told freeholders, “We have some very difficult ordinances” in the township and called some “contradictory.”
Many of the township’s rules originated “in the 80s, 90s, early 2000s,” Higgins said, “when we were still trying to push back on development.”
Higgins said the study would consider the “viewpoint of the developer. Where do they run into roadblocks? Where have we cost developers time and money?
“We don’t want unbridled development,” Higgins said, “but we do want a certain amount of development that can increase our ratables” and also provide additional services for taxpayers.
Kovach said her town already enjoys a cooperative relationship with the township.
“I want to see Clinton continue to grow while still maintaining the character that it has,” Kovach said. “It’s important not just for the town but for the county. We’re a hot spot and I want us to continue being that hot spot where people come in and enjoy ... The town supports it.”
Clinton will reexamine its Master Plan as required by law next year, Kovach said, “So it’s perfect timing for us. We’re looking at our ordinances.”
Freeholder Suzanne Lagay said the study will result in “best practices, shared learning, a growing body of deliberate policies and procedures .. that can be lessons learned for all of our municipalities.” She called the study a “great initiative.”
Freeholder Matt Holt – a former Clinton mayor himself – said the “county chooses to take a role” in planning for Hunterdon’s economic future, which will help shape “the next 50 years” of its future.
A goal, Holt said, is to “protect what is so great about this county (and) deal with the economics of what’s happening.” There’s currently a 40 percent commercial property vacancy rate in Hunterdon, he said.
“You cannot just sit and do nothing about it,” Holt said. “Development is not a bad word.” He said officials need to ask, “What’s the smart thing to do with this? And how do we plan ... and actually make that happen?”
Freeholders unanimously approved drafting a request for proposal from planners without public comment. But during the public comment period at the end of the meeting, debate became spirited.
“Shouldn’t plans for doing this kind of planning come from the ground up rather than from the top down?” asked Raritan Township resident Barbara Sachau. “So often we go and hire people at the top level and we don’t have the input from the people who live there.”
“I think Mr. Higgins would disagree with you,” answered Freeholder Director John Lanza. “He lives in the town.”
Sachau insisted that, “I would like to see any pilot project come from the ground up” because it’s the residents who pay for such studies and live with the results, she said. And she added that, “We have a problem because the whole state has a reputation.”
“We do this dance every time Ms. Sachau,” Lanza answered. “You’re against everything that we’re for.”
“I don’t know very many people in the township that have enough knowledge of ... our land use ordinances to provide any real meaningful criticism or meaningful suggestions on how to improve them,” said Higgins in response to Sachau. “So we will get information, we will get critiques, from people who have gone through the process.”
In an interview after the meeting, Higgins said the effort is “still an amorphous project. The details haven’t been worked out.
“I don’t how a developer working in multiple jurisdictions survives,” Higgins said. With different ordinances in different municipalities, he bemoaned “the eccentric little things that are buried in your zoning ordinances.” It’s those details “that motivates you to hire a local attorney and local engineer,” he said. “That’s the stuff that bothers me, the eccentricities, the inconsistencies.”
Higgins said he doesn’t think that the study will result in much change to township zoning.
“I think my big focus is process,” Higgins said. “It’s time and it’s money. What can we do better? Can we ease up on a site plan? Can we extend our waiver of a site plan?”