I am Agnes Sym and I am running for a seat on our Township Committee on Tuesday, November 5th. I’ve lived here for over five years, after having lived in Manhattan and Boston. This town is truly unique, and I feel so fortunate to be a resident of Millburn Township. My husband and I both feel so blessed to be able to raise our two young children in this special community.
I’m a first-time candidate and I have no political aspirations beyond our Township Committee or a partisan agenda. I see this election simply as a wonderful opportunity for me to give back to the community that I adore. Being new to this political scene, I hope that I can be a breath of fresh air and bring new ideas for our town.
Most importantly, I’m bringing to the table my experience as a seasoned negotiator and collaborator. I’m Vice President and Associate General Counsel at Fidelity Investments. Prior to joining Fidelity, I worked as a Mergers & Acquisition attorney in New York at the law firm of White & Case and as a Business & Finance attorney in Boston at the law firm of Mintz Levin.
I’ve negotiated complex corporate transactions, resolving issues for large multinational companies. I am licensed to practice law in New Jersey (as in-house counsel), New York, Massachusetts, D.C. and the United States Supreme Court. I studied International Relations at Wellesley College and attended Boston University School of Law.
Day in and day out, I’m faced with issues that require resolution and constantly working with different parties to find the middle ground. We work very hard to reach arrangements that benefit both sides. With this experience and skill set, we can help our town come up with creative solutions that meet the needs of multiple parties.
Many of you have asked me why I’m running. I truly care about our community and I’m concerned about some of the things that have been happening to our township. I don’t want to lose many of the good things about our town – many of us moved here for the quality of our education system and we need to take actions that will preserve our quality of life and our children’s future.
This is a vital time when we need leadership that is willing to consider the views of its residents, across the board and be transparent with communication, without meetings only behind closed doors. In other words, it is not time for top down leadership, where decisions are being made for us without much explanation or much input from the community. Rather, it is time for bottom up leadership – where the community can determine what the priorities are and how we decide as a township on the key issues.
Specifically, on the issue of housing, we need responsible development and for that, we need to be proactive and not only reactive. In the case of Woodland Road, for reasons unknown to many of us, our discussions with the developer broke down and, as a result, the developer sued us. Once the lawsuit appeared, our township seemed to have lost any leverage that we had as judges will give developers the ability to build more units if a town has not met its affordable housing obligations. As a result, we are ending up with a development that is more than three (3) times the density of the apartments just across the street from the site – and many have argued that the development is too massive of a structure for that specific location, just a couple of blocks down from Glenwood Elementary School and the Short Hills train station.
To be clear, this is not an issue about affordable housing – we have obligations that we have to deal with. But we can and should try to take steps to regain control of how we comply with these obligations. We should determine where to build affordable housing – not the developers. If we do not take steps to get ahead of this, we risk almost doubling our population to meet our obligations.
There is an expectation that our township will be required to offer at least a total of 946 affordable housing units. So let’s do the math. As developers are required to build only 15% of their new developments for affordable housing purposes, over time, if we continue to play into the developer’s hands (as we appeared to have done so in the case of the Woodland Road development), we could have more than 6,000 additional units built in our town. For a town with about 7,000 households today, this is not an insignificant number.
So, we need to take control and manage our obligations immediately. We need to explore more options, and contrary to what our mayor recently said at the debate, perhaps we should look into getting into the development business so we can meet our obligations without having so many additional luxury apartments tied to the affordable ones when planned by the developers.
We should consider: (1) talking with current multiple-family properties to see if they may be willing to offer some of their units for affordable housing – perhaps even offer some tax relief as an incentive, (2) watching the market for properties coming up for sale and purchasing them for our own development for affordable housing, especially properties that are vacant today, and (3) providing affordable housing for the retirement community and adults with special needs – so that we try to minimize the impact to our schools.
Also, if another builder comes down the road with a new proposal for housing, it is imperative that we come to the table and negotiate in good faith, with true give and take, with the process being openly communicated to the public – and we have to see it to the end. We cannot risk facing another builders’ remedy lawsuit.
This is our biggest challenge today as overdevelopment can potentially have the greatest impact to our small town. Many of my supporters (Republicans and Democrats alike) are all parents of young children. It’s highly likely that families, like my own, will live in town for at least ten (10) more years or longer. While it would be great to think that the newer developments will have no impact on our schools, it seems prudent to me to prepare as if there will be at least some impact to our schools, and to be mindful of that fact with every new proposal to increase housing in our town. I believe in hoping for the best, but preparing for the worst. If we have a crowding issue in our schools, we could quickly find ourselves with lower school rankings which will have a negative impact on our children’s future. We need responsible development.
Finally, I plan to serve our residents and tackle the tough issues that are a priority to us all; free from party politics, personal agendas, and conflicting influences. In my professional life, I’m consistently challenged to bring opposing parties together and my success or failure is judged by achieving mutually beneficial agreements.
Also, as parent of children in our public elementary school system, I can represent more voices from our township and help foster a richer community. We don’t need more of the same perspectives on our township committee and in fact, many of us speak to wanting inclusion and diversity. I can bring to the table a broader and more diverse perspective and an inclusive professional voice.
I urge all of you to choose the person over the party and to choose me so that we can have inclusive balanced representation that is desperately needed in our town. The future of Milburn is not a partisan issue – it is a community issue and we must be proactive in achieving positive outcomes that improve our daily ways of life.