MONTCLAIR, NJ - The Montclair Planning Board discussed changes to the SAFE Streets plan at its July 13 meeting, focusing on rewording the master plan with regard to regarding pedestrians and cyclists, and the major point of contention was a topic Bike & Walk Montclair have focused on greatly – dedicated bicycle lanes. 

It was the first Planning Board meeting for Mayor Sean Spiller, resuming the mayor’s place on the Planning Board after his predecessor Robert Jackson had Martin Schwartz, who has since stepped down from the Planning Board, occupy the seat in his stead.   

Cycling advocates in town, including Bike & Walk Montclair, have called for dedicated bicycle lanes through Montclair’s street grid as part of its Compete Streets Implementation Plan, but the plan would likely result in a loss of parking spaces.  Despite the increase in cycling around town for commuting purposes as a result of COVID-19, however, there has been skepticism that a bike-lane system could work in an American suburban town as opposed to cycling-friendly European cities such as Amsterdam or in a climate of extreme winters and summers as opposed to the temperate Pacific Northwest climate enjoyed in Seattle or in Portland, Oregon.  Nevertheless, the plan for bike lanes got a big boost when board member Carmel Loughman announced that she had changed her opposition to the idea and was now in favor of it.

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The majority report of the Master Plan Subcommittee, put forward by committee members Loughman and Daniel Gilmer, recommends amended language to the Master Plan stating that all homeowners, businesses, churches and other institutions, and renters be notified of any street reconfiguration for bicycle lanes, with a public hearing to be scheduled in advance of any plans to make such changes.  The reconfiguration would not go forward, however, if 30 percent or more of these entities opposed it. 

The report also recommends that the amended language of the master plan and the inclusion of sixteen pages of the SAFE Streets plan be voted on by the board after a public hearing on the matter, with the board considering the feasibility of implementing some of the recommendations of the plan.  These include the prospect of strictly enforcing speed limits and “No Parking” rules, the impact of bollards and barriers on garbage collection and snow removal, the difficulty that landscapers and delivery vans would face parking on streets with bike lanes, and how to ensure that cyclists obey rules requiring them not to pass school buses. Loughman and Gilmer proposed that the public hearing on the issue could start with the July 27 Planning Board meeting.

The third member of the Master Plan Subcommittee, Carole Willis, was concerned about moving too fast on bicycle lanes.  In her one-woman minority report, she expressed concern over how many on-street parking spaces would be sacrificed to bicycle lanes, and she opined that the Complete Streets Network had not been thoroughly vetted and added that the bike-lane plan would compromise the multiple-use character of the municipal street network that currently exists in Montclair.  She said that the board should move forward first with pedestrian issues and also bicycle issues related to safety, where there is consensus, instead of delving into how street configurations can be altered. 

“I know there are many communities that are satisfactory and [where] it’s working out,” Willis said of other towns where accommodations for bicycles have been made, “and that’s the ones that are always quoted, but I also look and see there’s communities where it’s not working out, and so  I would like us to take a little more time with the issues that relate particularly to the set-aside of land 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, that’s to be used by no one else, and even when bicycles are not there, that land has to sit unused, and all the other uses that would take place there are not given an opportunity to happen.”   

For that reason, Willis urged that the board not move to start a hearing on the issue for July 27, and she added two more reasons – the ongoing COVID-19 crisis and the inattention given to public affairs by residents in the summer months.  She suggested that the issue be looked at more thoroughly in the fall.  

Planning Director Janice Talley agreed that there would be no opportunity to start a public hearing beginning with the July 27 meeting on such short notice, and she added that there was only one Planning Board meeting scheduled for August, with the intent on haring an unrelated application.  She did say, though, in response to a question from Loughman about what is currently done when a street is under consideration for a change and if the engineering department would look into parking, that there have been several separate bicycling plans considered in the past.  She said that if the township wants to put any cycling plan in place, it can be done with council guidance and that it does not have to go to Planning Board.  She said that it was important that a town have a plan for bicycles because it enables the township to apply for grants more easily.  Neither Mayor Spiller nor Second Ward Councilor Robin Schlager offered any input on this point.

Board member Anthony Ianuale expressed his own reticence in going forward too quickly, noting that the SAFE Streets plan goes on for 171 pages, and he was concerned with editing a few pages of it and simply dropping it into the master plan.  And Board Chairman John Wynn said he was afraid that what was in the plan would be seen as the only recourse.  He suggested that if it is framed in a way that it is being adopted as a concrete plan that shows certain options, those options would raise concerns to be addressed on a street-by-street basis as to how and when they could be implemented.      

“We’re not implementing any of this,” Chairman Wynn said of the Planning Board. “This is going to be implemented by other entities, and so we don’t know what they‘re going to pick out and try to do first.”  He hoped the plan would not be used to endorse anything the planning Board does not intend to endorse and does not yet see without a concrete proposal.  

Ultimately, the Planning Board decided to continue the discussion of language on bicycling in the master plan in the near future – maybe as early as the August 10 meeting or another August meeting, date to be determined.  The earliest start date for a public hearing on bicycle lanes would be some time in September.     

The Planning Board also reviewed the annual report from the Zoning Board of Adjustment.  Director Talley explained that the Zoning Board made a required annual report to the Planning Board wit recommendations from 2019. She said that report will be considered by Zoning Subcommittee to advance whatever changes are required by to zoning ordinances for consideration by the Planning Board and then the Township Council.  The Zoning Board recommends a review of parking requirements and also recommends that the governing body enact as soon as possible all recommendations of the master plan that is supports, among other things.