MILLBURN, NJ - With the 2019 general election less than two weeks away, the Millburn Ed Center played host Thursday night to a candidate's forum, which was an opportunity for town residents to ask questions of people running for seats on the Millburn Township Committee.
Current Mayor and Democratic candidate Diane Thall-Eglow was the only incumbent of the three candidates at the podium. She was joined by running mate Richard Wasserman, as well as Agnes Sym, running on the republican ticket.
The event was moderated by Tom Hildner, member of the board of directors for the Short Hills Association. Hildner, who is the regular host for the event, broke the event up into several sections.
Each candidate made opening and closing remarks, sandwiched around two sections of questions.
The first section consisted of prepared questions for all three candidates. After a short break, Hildner returned, reading questions that had been submitted by the audience during the intermission.
The first question for all three candidates concerned development in town, and asked candidates about areas in need of redevelopment. The issue received attention after a township settlement with the Silverman Group that began the process of putting 62 residential units near the Short Hills Train Station was approved last month.
The question was how each candidate would ensure that residents, and not developers, set the agenda for development in the township. Wasserman received first crack at the question, and said that the downtown was the only such area demarcated in town under those parameters.
"The only area that the committee has approved for redevelopment is the downtown, "Wasserman said. "There is no other area that has been approved. The township committee actually took action recently to improve the downtown by passing an ordnance that raised the height of [buildings] from two stories to three stories.
"This will make one and two story structures more valuable, and offer flexibility for landlords to upgrade their properties. And I do believe we must continue to lower the barriers for businesses to thrive in the downtown."
Wasserman also added that he believes there is much that needs to be done in terms of parking, traffic circulation and marketing for the downtown, and that the result of decades of neglect in terms of creating affordable housing led to the situation where the committee was open to the builder's remedy situation.
Sym was the next candidate to speak on the matter, and said that while she understood the township's need to fulfill its affordable housing quota under the Mount Laurel Doctrine, she and other residents are opposed to the size of the building the township agreed to.
"This affordable housing issue is one that various townships are facing," Sym said. "And this is our biggest challenge today. And the development of the Woodland Road Property is indeed an issue that is near and dear to my heart, especially since I've been sending our two children to Glenwood for the past five years.
"In particular, this development is one that many have stated does not fit within the character of the neighborhood. The massive nature of is what most of us oppose."
Sym said that her main concern besides traffic and safety in the area was that a wave of new students could overwhelm the school system, and lower the state rankings for the Millburn School District.
Mayor Thall-Eglow was the last to respond to the question, and said that the town's state-mandated obligation to provide affordable housing was the deciding factor in taking the settlement.
"As Richard said, The township only has one area of redevelopment, that was established back in 2008," Thall-Eglow said. "And that includes the municipal buildings and the downtown area. I can't say why this was never acted upon, I was not on the township committee until three years ago.
"But concerning the Woodland property, it is important to know how we got here. 47 years ago...there was the Mount Laurel Doctrine, which is now law under the New Jersey State Constitution. This law requires that municipalities provide affordable housing. All municipalities, including Millburn township, are bound to follow the law."
Thall-Eglow said that all the mayors and township committees before her since the Mount Laurel Doctrine had kicked the can down the road on the issue, and now it was time for the township to act.
Another of the association questions was a two-parter, revolving around redevelopment in the downtown and why it has not yet occurred on a full scale. The question asked of candidates was what they felt the committee needed to do for redevelopment, and wether or not they would revive the Downtown Millburn Development Alliance (DMDA), which dissolved late last year.
Thall-Eglow received first response to the question, and said that under her watch, the committee had taken steps to redevelop the downtown.
"Redevelopment has not occurred for many years," Thall-Eglow said. "There was never any incentive for commercial property owners to reinvest in their property. We have now taken a very important first step by passing a new height ordinance, which now allows up to three floors without property owners having to go before the board and ask for a variance."
She also said that she would be in favor of bringing back a modified form of the DMDA as a Special Improvement District, although she said that the prior incarnation of the board had not been run well in her opinion.
Wasserman was next, and said that in his opinion, the lack of redevelopment stemmed from complete streets, a prior project that changed traffic patterns through the downtown.
"I believe that no redevelopment has happened in the downtown, because of all of the dissension surrounding the complete streets redevelopment," Wasserman said. "Because traffic and parking have been so challenging, I do not believe there was consensus on doing any more development.
"I do think that we need to address those challenges, and find a way to make traffic better, and insure pedestrian safety at the same time."
In regard to the DMDA, Wasserman said that he would want to rewrite town statutes to give the township more control over such an agency, were it to be reinstituted, as he said the township saw massive waste in the past under the organization.
Sym was the final candidate to answer the question, and said that all three candidates were in alignment on the issue.
"I agree downtown needs substantial redevelopment, and I'm in favor of reviving the DMDA," Sym said. "We need a designated group to help execute the special improvement district now more than ever. We have issues with pedestrian safety, traffic, parking and empty storefronts.
"We need to bring back the DMDA, so that we can make meaningful improvements in these areas. After 30 years of operating, it's so unfortunate that the DMDA recently disbanded...we need to support reinstating it so that there can be a clear focus on promoting our town to businesses and business owners so that they can be encouraged to open their business in MIllburn."
Election day is scheduled for Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2019.
Editor's Note: For transparency and disclosure, TAPinto Millburn/Short Hills would like to clarify that Agnes Sym is the wife of site owner and operator Jonathan Sym. Neither member of the Sym household had any input or contribution to this article, which was written entirely by TAPinto Millburn/Short Hills Editor Matthew Kass.