SPARTA, NJ – The parking lot was on everyone’s mind as they packed into the Sparta Township Council meeting on Tuesday, to be part of the discussion about the ongoing Lake Mohawk parking lot issue. Before they left they had heard the mayor, Molly Whilesmith and council members direct township attorney Tom Ryan to meet with Lake Mohawk Country Club attorney Kevin Kelly and LMCC General Manager John Stanley to quickly find a resolution to the issue.
Two main themes emerged through the hour and a half of public comments; the lack of an agreement between the Lake Mohawk Country Club and the Planning and Zoning Boards with respect to the parking lot and questions about the township’s proposed lease with Steve Scro, the owner of the Old Carl’s Auto Body.
Attorney for the Lake Mohawk Country Club Kevin Kelly was first to the microphone during public comment, tying both issues together. “You need a parking lot in White Deer Plaza and we have a parking lot in White Deer Plaza. It couldn’t be more simple.” He also said, “We appreciate Steve Scro but he only has a few spots.”
It’s not quite that simple, however, with the ongoing litigation initiated by the LMCC. The county club sued the township after they failed to get approval from the planning board to charge for parking. When they lost their initial suit, they filed an appeal.
The LMCC had applied to the planning board to be able to charge for parking in their lot, “$1 an hour, $4 for the day…to have the people who use it pay for it,” Kelly said. The county club is looking for help with the $700,000 price tag to make upgrades and repairs to the lot, according to Kelly.
Kelly and others addressed the division this has caused within the community. “People who are friends can’t even talk to each other about this,” Kelly said. “We think we should do something about it.”
“We agree,” Whilesmith said. “There is nothing I would like better than to solve this sooner rather than later.”
Kelly asked to “draw a line and start from here.” The mayor and council members were agreeable but pointed out the stumbling block created by the lawsuit.
“If we were not in litigation there would be no barrier to communication,” Whilesmith said. “The country club is suing us. We are not the one’s who can drop it.”
“The Town Council can make a change to zoning,” Ryan said in response to an inquiry from the public.
“The lawsuit is prohibiting the change of zoning,” Deputy Mayor Christine Quinn said.
“If it was withdrawn, there could be a free flow of information,” Ryan said.
Residents and business owners had strong words for the council.
Jennifer Phillips said “It’s a ridiculous situation. It’s time to change the laws.” Ken Order said, “It’s a pitiful dereliction of duty.” “It’s just absurd,” Diane Ward said. Chris Murch, owner of WaggMore said he has “been losing sleep over the issue.” The owner of Garlic and Oil Kathryn Kaplan said she would go out of business, if the parking lot is closed, impacting her seven employees and all of the organizations to which she donates.
St.Moritz owner Keith Holmes said, "October 23 is coming fast," voicing concern of the business owners about the LMCC's announcement the lot would be closed to non-members on that date.
As person after person came up to speak, Whilesmith consistent in her response that she was committed to finding a solution; “it is of paramount importance.”
“We are concerned about all the businesses in the plaza and all the residents who want to visit you,” Whilesmith said. She shared her personal belief that the lot was private property and should be used the way the owners want to use it, clarifying the opinion was hers alone, she was not speaking for the other four council members. “I don’t think residents or businesses care who is at fault as long as it gets resolved.”
While addressing the council, Holmes also questioned the township about Scro’s property.
Whilesmith and Councilman David Smith addressed the resolution on the agenda regarding the Old Carl’s Auto Body property. Whilesmith told the crowd they were not looking to enter into discussion with Scro to get parking spaces, they were attempting to formalizing township use of the building. She said the township uses it for police department and CERT training as well as a staging area for emergency services during large LMCC events. Smith said the ambulance squad and fire department use the building during events such as the Turkey Trot, German Christmas Market and July Fourth celebrations.
Whilesmith said Scro has allowed the township to use the building for free for years.
The mayor said Police Chief Neil Spidaletto had approached her about "adding some money to the 2020 budget to upgrade the parking lot" because of all of the time the township uses it.
“Because we are using it more and more, we thought we needed to put it in the budget,” Whilesmith said. "That is the appropriate thing to do."
Since the discussion was already in progress, lease negotiations were able to be set up quickly. The council members approved the first reading of a resolution to negotiate a lease with Scro. Details of the lease are not yet available, Whilesmith said, because the lease is still being negotiated.
Residents continued to question the council about the seeming lack of cooperation between the council and LMCC.
Sussex County Freeholder and former Sparta mayor Josh Hertzberg address the council. He said, “Did anything come to the township council from Planning Board. The township council has no authority over planning board. It is a statutory board. At no point from the start of this process has township council been asked to get involved.” Hertzberg said there was nothing that could be done by the township council before the litigation was filed.
Former mayor and former planning board member Mike Devine said the council “has been as clear as could be…nothing can be done until the litigation is done.”
Whilesmith said, “It's true. We can’t talk about paid parking. We could sit here stubbornly and say we’re not going to do anything until litigation is settled but we’re doing our best to keep the lines of communication open. If it were up to me it would be settled in two minutes.”
Devine and Quinn spoke about the potential issue of spot zoning and how that could impact other parking lots in the township. Quinn said that was her concern. Whilesmith said the attorneys were looking into other options to bring the two sides together.
Smith asked if it would be a zoning issue if the township helped with plowing and maintenance. “There are other ways we can help offset costs,” Smith said. Smith was told those contributions would not need a zoning change.
Councilman Dan Chiariello said it was nice to see the community and business owners engaged. He quipped “if anyone is interested in joining the planning board or zoning board please consider applying.”
The White Deer Plaza merchants will be holding a Free Plaza Day on Saturday from noon until 2 p.m. The merchants will be outside on the sidewalks, offering free food and other items, to foster an opportunity for conversation with the community on the parking issue.