Tempers Flare at Montclair Planning Board Meeting Over Master Plan

Credits: Natalie Heard Hackett

MONTCLAIR, NJ - During a tense Monday night meeting of the Montclair Planning Board, the board decided to allow for more opportunity for public comment before approving the Master Plan.

The master planning process is designed for members of the community to create a framework for planning out what they want the community to look like. The design of the Master plan places parameters on the control of the direction and landscape of the town. This has become a passionate issue for many residents and planning board members alike, as adopting a new Master Plan for the town will set the tone for the development that will take place over the next ten years.

Adopting a Master Plan also includes review of current trends in building and development, land use, economic development, housing, open space and recreation, natural and cultural resources, transportation, and services and facilities. Demographic influences are also considered through analysis of most of these significant fundamentals. 

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During the public hearing on May 19 and June 23, the Planning Board heard public comment from the community on the master plan. The purpose of Monday night's meeting was to approve the land use portion of the Master Plan.

Some Planning Board members and community members had positioned themselves to hear a vote on the Master Plan, while others expressed opposition. In addition, there were a few audience members who came bearing signs expressing their views, while others were shouting out at the board throughout the meeting.

There was even a point when Planning Board members veered off of Robert's Rules of Order to answer back with hecklers. A point came in the meeting when Mayor Robert Jackson stopped the meeting to bring order and ask hecklers to wait for the public comment opportunity to speak.

Chairman John Wynn opened saying, "We have at least one member of the board who would like to say something. There has also been some confusion about whether or not we would then allow the public comment portion." 

Planning Board member Dr. Carole Willis gave a lengthy presentation explaining the role of the Planning Board. She opened her presentation by saying, "The Planning Board has exclusive jurisdiction over the land use of the Master plan. ...The established setbacks, height, density and use per acre. Once the master plan sets out the land use development, the rest of the Master plan is advisory only." She continued to explain, "After the planning board has adopted the land use element of our Master Plan, it goes to the council and the council does the zoning ordinance and that ordinance has to be adopted by the township council. ...The township council has an out, however, they can reject the plan, but they have to state the reasons why."

Willis closed her presentation citing her concerns with the Master plan were the lack of economic analysis, development, the lean toward urbanization and lack of infrastructure. "It is in sharp contrast with our present plan." 

Willis added that public concerns have been surrounding the density, height and coverage of the site. "That is what has the most impact on our lives. It's the part of the plan that we have the most authority to decide."  Willis' presentation showed a comparison with the circulation being proposed in contrast to the present 2006 plan. "There are lots of concerns, but a significant portion has been the land use portion of the plan." 

Willis says the land use element and circulation element of the plan are united and challenged the board members that they have yet to discuss that component of the plan. The process also outlined by Willis, will have a significant impact on what the town looks like including the actions and timelines in which the plan will be implemented.

Willis closed quoting Yogi Berra. She said, "It ain't over till its over."

"We haven't discussed it a lot because it was a basic premise from the beginning," replied Wynn. Wynn continued by explaining that the combined plan was a cutting edge idea and that they impact one another. Peg Seip supported Wynn's statement saying that the combined plan was a gold standard. "It's the direction that sustainable planning (is going)....that's why they're together."

Willis replied, "I do not want it to take precedence over historic preservation. All of these things must be considered as part of the package."

Polite debate ensued between several planning board members who took an opportunity to share their concerns. A turning point in the meeting came early on when audience members began calling out expressing their dissatisfaction and raising their signs. Planning board members began responding to audience members to address their concerns and it was clear that the meeting was taking a different turn.

For the next few hours, planning board members expressed their opinions. Tempers flared between Martin Schwartz and Wynn throughout the meeting when at each new conversation the bickering between the two increased. Schwartz said, "There is a split of decision on what type of town we should be..." Amid cheers from the audience, Schwartz continued by citing two recent planning board approvals that he disapproved of. "Clearly there is far too much bulk and density that we have allowed in the last ten years."

In a room of about 20 residents, several residents challenged the Master Plan during the public portion comment citing density, insufficient data, affordable housing and bulk as reasons for considering a revision of the plan.

Debate also ensue between planning board members and the audience. "We are talking about what we are going to do going forward", said Wynn to resident Martin Gonzalez who spoke during the public comment portion of the meeting and challenged the planning board by asking for the current data.

Gonzalez says, “If we find that the apartments have an awful lot of kids, then we find that they are a drain.” He challenged board members to review data on the impact people with children have on the schools.

Other members of the audience took turns addressing their concerns with the plan to the board, including Dr. Renee Baskerville. 

As tensions arose, Wynn and Schwartz continued to bicker throughout the meeting to the point where Arthur Neiss walked over and whispered in Schwartz's ear.

There were also points of frustration for Janice Talley as she slammed her hand down to make her point, after continually being interrupted.

Resident William Scott said, “Affordable housing has been reduced by 57 percent.” He prepared a handout for the board and was challenged to elaborate on what he specifically is requesting that they consider.

Wynn said, "The fact that there is confusion on the board.... we would all benefit from having another revision to look at (the plan) before we make a final decision..."

The end result was that the Planning Board was forced to revisit the Master Plan and allow the public to comment at a future meeting.

The next planning board meeting will take place on October 6, but the Master Plan will not be addressed until October 27. Public comment will be taken on the Master Plan at the October 27 meeting. 

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