SPARTA, NJ – The Sparta Township Council and Lake Mohawk Country Club have come to a preliminary agreement, according to Mayor Molly Whilesmith and Lake Mohawk Country Club President Bill Greenlaw. Council members will cast their votes for the first reading of the proposed ordinance at the next township council meeting Greenlaw and Whilesmith said.
Details of the proposed ordinance have not been released because they are still being developed, the two said as they walked together through White Deer Plaza on Saturday afternoon. At the Free Plaza Day event organized by the White Deer Plaza merchants’ association, Whilesmith said, “The town council had township attorney Tom Ryan and township manager Bill Close meet with their counterparts LMCC general manager John Stanley and the LMCC attorneys. We wanted this resolved as expeditiously as possible. As directed, with everybody, in the room they came to an agreement that is great for all parties.”
At the township council meeting on October 8, at the end of the public comment portion of the meeting the mayor directed Ryan to meet with Kevin Kelly and Megan Ward, attorneys for the LMCC to “develop a plan that meets everyone’s needs.” Close was not at the meeting.
The anticipated action by the township council would lead to the end of the lawsuit brought by the LMCC against the Sparta Planning and Zoning boards.
Greenlaw said, “The resolution we expect town council to consider would remove the need to pursue the appeal because we’ve gotten what we need.”
“We want this matter to be finished before the courts come to a decision,” Whilesmith said. “We don’t want there to be a winner and a loser, we want everyone to be a winner.”
Greenlaw agreed. “It’s good for everyone not to have any more legal bills.”
Greenlaw said the lot would not be closed on October 23 if the action is taken at the meeting on October 22. “That is why we chose that date to close the lot,” he said. They wanted the closure date to be the day after the council meeting, allowing for time to come to an agreement prior to the lot being closed to non residents according to Greenlaw.
Kelly and Ward, attorneys for the LMCC said it was helpful to have the residents and White Deer Plaza merchants attend the township council meeting last week. “As soon as they heard that the businesses support paying for parking, everything changed.”
At the council meeting the community, business owners and patrons spoke with nearly a unanimous voice that the LMCC should be allowed to charge for parking in their lot.
“Leaving us out of the conversation wasn’t smart,” St. Moritz owner Keith Holmes said on Saturday. “It wasn’t until the merchants started talking with one voice that they started listening.”
Nick Kroudis owner of Il Porto said, “Everyone supports helping the LMCC but they need to support us as well.”
Albie Parisella of Lakeside Café said it had become apparent that the township thought they were protecting the business owners.
“We have volunteer boards doing their best,” Whilesmith said when a resident was critical of the planning and zoning boards.
News of the proposed agreement had not yet reached all residents enjoying the food and conversations on Saturday, yet many people visiting the plaza said they were there to show support for the local businesses.
Beth Hofgesang said, “I support paid parking. It’s private property and they should have the right to get payment. Closing the lot would be so detrimental to the plaza.”
Two weeks ago the LMCC announced they would be closing the club’s parking lot on October 23, to all but country club members. That news spurred White Deer Plaza merchants to meet, coming to consensus on the parking lot issue. The merchants had been talking with the country club until last March, they said, when communication was cut off. The merchants said they had offered to pay a portion of the monthly maintenance costs but had been rebuffed. With that option seemingly off the table and a looming deadline of October 23, the merchants said they supported the country club in their efforts to get paid parking in their lot.
When the matter was before the planning board in 2016 and 2017 the LMCC engineer, Stan Puszcz of CP Engineering anticipated the cost to repair and reconfigure the lot was $390,000. Puszcz had said the LMCC trustees wanted to charge for parking to “defray costs and absorb operating costs. At the October 8, 2019 township council meeting Kelly said the price tag for the parking lot was approximately $700,000.
At the Plaza Day event, resident Lisa DeGraw said she also supported the country club, “they should be able to get payment.” But she said she can see both sides. She has friends that live in the reservation that see the need for paid parking but work in businesses in the plaza that might have been concerned about the impact of paid parking on patrons.
One resident said he thought the township should pay part of the cost of the LMCC parking lot because charging for parking could hurt businesses. “Where are you going to go for a pizza, here or somewhere that you don’t have to pay for parking,” he said.
Details of the fee structure have not been released but a few business owners said they heard the first 30 minutes would be free, then $1 for the first hour up to a maximum of $4 for the day. This fee structure is similar to the discussions in 2017 when the issue was before the planning board. At the March 2017 meeting Ward said, “The objective behind the process is to generate revenue, not surplus funds, to offset construction and maintenance costs. Lake Mohawk Country Club is a non-profit organization.”
On Saturday, Tanti Baci owner Sam Masih said “It’s a great turn around. People are very excited.” The plaza merchants were collecting signatures from people who supported their efforts to keep the parking lot open. Masih said he collected more than 20 signatures in the first five minutes alone.
Carrying a stack of additional petitions, Carole Simpson of Coldwell Banker agreed there had been a “wonderful response.”
Kathryn Kaplan owner of Garlic and Oil said she thought “things were moving in a substantial and positive direction,” following the township council meeting. “I believe we will make it happen and in a fiscally responsible way.”
“The parking should be for everyone,” resident Heather Scott said. “A nominal fee is reasonable to assist with maintenance and infrastructure, when you’re coming for dinner isn’t going to break the bank. The club being wholly responsible is unfair.”
“It costs money to maintain the parking lot,” LMCC resident Anne Lopuch said. “I don’t think it’s wrong to have everyone share the expense.”
Over and over people who identified themselves as residents said they supported paying for parking in the LMCC lot “as long as it’s reasonable.”
“A lot of people are supporting us,” Casa Mia owner Mike Pugliese said. “We just want to achieve the goal of getting past the ‘Family Feud.’”
Il Porto’s owner Maria Kroudis agreed. “It has been a really great turn out. It’s great to see so much support.”
More than one merchant said they were talking about making White Deer Plaza Day an annual event.
Pattycakes’s owner Patty Gozdenovich said the support from people attending the Plaza Day “has been amazing.”
Resident Alissa Isaacson said, “I’m here to support local business who work so hard to make the area viable. This is what we want.”
Sparta resident Amy Cilli expressed the feeling that was echoed throughout the event. “White Deer Plaza is the heart of Sparta, I support local businesses and I support paid parking. I love this town.”
“We’re really encouraged there will be a solution in front of town council,” Greenlaw said.
“I am happy we are working together to come to a solution to this issue,” Whilesmith said. “It’s also great to see so many people out on a beautiful day enjoying all White Deer Plaza has to offer.”
Whilesmith and Greenlaw jointly said they are pleased there has been so much progress on the issue so quickly.
The next Sparta Township Council meeting is scheduled for Tuesday, October 22 at 7:30 p.m. in the municipal building.