SUMMIT, NJ - Like the weather outdoors, debate and conversation on numerous topics heated up at the Summit Common Council's second meeting of June.
At the meeting, Miguel Velez -- a former five-year planning board member -- questioned the council’s recent approval the Council’s recent approval to spend more than $300,000 for a decorative cobblestone pathway on Beechwood Road in the central business district.
Velez said a number of residents felt that the expenditure seemed to violate a city tradition that, if an improvement helps certain beneficiaries then those beneficiaries should pay a portion of the cost of the improvement.
Since the project benefits the central business district, it is felt that business district merchants should be footing a portion of the bill.
Velez added that many cities have abandoned installation of cobblestones because they are difficult to maintain in winter and are difficult to work on.
He also questioned whether the project should have been first reviewed by the planning board before coming before council and urged the governing body to reconsider its action.
Council president Michael McTernan replied that the pathway was decorative and, therefore, its approval was not a planning issue for the planning board.
He added, “the buck stops with us. We make the ultimate decision.”
Although McTernan noted he personally believed the cobblestone look would help beautify the central business district, he said he was disappointed that Summit Downtown, Inc. did not contribute to the cost.
First Ward Councilman David Naidu, who brought up the issue of merchant contributions for the pathway, reiterated his previous comments and asked that the city consult an expert on design before completing the project.
Later in the meeting, after the council decided not to act on a resolution to set aside public lands for 'Parklets' - small areas around previous parking spots that could be used for resident relaxation, performances and displays -- Mayor Nora Radest said she was “dismayed” that the council could spend over a half-hour discussing cobblestones but could not “get their heads around” the 'Parklets project,' a small improvement that could do much for the downtown.
The council also approved a bond ordinance appropriating $3,600,000 for a number of improvements, including upgrade of the joint dispatch center radio, library and Family Aquatic Center improvements and a feasibility study on a possible new fire headquarters.
Council finance chairwoman Sandra Lizza noted that the larger projects, like turf replacement at Tatlock Field, require large maintenance expenses that go along with major decisions. She noted the decison to turf the field was made 10 years ago.
Lizza reminded council and the public that each project included in the capital plan would be presented to council to be approved on its own merits.
She added, “There will be another opportunity for the need and details of each project to be heard and then voted on. "
Naidu added that he would like to see some “tweaking” of the council budget workshop process. Naidu said when councilmen are given a list of capital items the tendency might be to say “yeah, I like that” and agree to individual projects. He noted, however, that he would like to be given more of a chance to “drill down further” on individual items to get a more detailed explanation of each.
Lizza replied that the council committee process helps accomplish some of the ends requested by Naidu, where the committees get a chance to review in more detail projects as they are presented to the committees by department heads and staff.
She added, however, that it would be helpful to have each department head give a more detailed review to the entire council in a second session on capital planning.
McTernan, Naidu and Councilmsn-at-Large Richard Sun agreed a more detailed review by the council as a whole would be useful.
First Ward Councilman Robert Rubino also said that the city would have more money with which to fund projects if residents decided in November to vote against a ballot question to renew the Union County Open Space Fund.
Rubino noted that the County, since the fund was authorized in 2000 for purchase of 100 acres of land, had purchased about 300 acres.
He added the fund also had been used to provide jobs and pay off debt service -- items it was not intended for.
He said doing away with the county open space tax could return about $1,044,000 to Summit residents that potentially could be used for other city programs and projects.
In another matter related to the budgetary process, Second Ward Councilman Patrick Hurley again requested that a public hearing be held on a request by Fire Chief Eric Evers to increase the number of career firefighters serving the city.
Hurley’s request came in response to introduction of a resolution to appoint three new volunteer firefighters.
The councilman, who works in the security industry, said the council needed to air the chief’s rationale for the request because of the increasing complexity of fire fighting and the necessity to improve it to avoid future danger to city residents.
McTernan replied that Hurley’s comments were “alarmist” and may have created the impression that there was an imminent danger to city residents. He also said there should be no impression left that council members did not care about safety.
Hurley replied he was not implying that there was an imminent danger, but just stating the reality of public safety as it exists in today’s world.
McTernan said the budgetary process for the current year already had been concluded, but the staffing requests would be aired during next year’s budgetary process.
Both he and Lizza added that the staffing requests had been presented properly through the committee and budget process.
Naidu said although he was a large proponent of staying within the budget process for funding, he had seen a presentation by the fire department on the complexities of modern firefighting and this made him think about the necessity of exploring the staffing issue further.
Council public safety chairwoman Mary Ogden agreed that the budget process had been followed, and said she had been assured the staffing issue would be explored again during next year’s budget discussions.
She added, however, that, had the request for public hearings on fire department staffing been brought up earlier she would have supported it.
On another matter, residents of Linda Lane complained that a builder working on a proposed residence at 223 Ashland Road is seeking to chance the address of the Ashland Road property to Linda Lane, despite the fact that there only is 20 feet of the property fronting on Linda Lane.
Lori Ingerman of 19 Linda Lane noted that the street is a “very small, quiet, double cul-de-sac with a total of 12 homes on the street.”
She said residents have had two meetings with the city zoning officer to express their concerns.
Ingerman noted the investment group and a builder purchased the lot on Ashland that includes a sliver of property extending through the wood to Linda Lane, which is behind it.
She said the builder has “deforested” the property of “nearly 40 trees” and is filing plans to change the address to 55 Linda Lane.
Ingerman noted the lot is only 55 feet at its widest point and the property has less than 25 feet of frontage on Linda Lane, and the building plan calls for a “very long, narrow, ‘railroad-type’ house situated sideways on the lot, not actually facing either street.”
The main house, she said, would be 4,500 square feet and the development would include a three-car, attached garage with a guest residence built on top.
The resident said she and her neighbors were concerned establishment of a “through lot” with an an entrance to the property on Linda Lana and creation of the lot front the street on which it has a lesser amount of frontage would violate the city zoning ordinance.
She added the proposed development would create additional traffic, activity and visitor parking on “a very small, residential street."
Former Summit planning board and zoning board member, and Linda Lane resident, Vicki Weber added, “while Linda Lane may be a lower classification street, the property at 223 Ashland Road has dramatically insufficient frontage on Linda Lane, perhaps as little as 20 to 25 feet where the space regulations require 90 feet. It is true that the frontage on Ashland Road is also below the requirement, but at 55 feet it has more than twice the street frontage than that facing Linda Lane. In addition, this lot has historically fronted Ashland Road, as do nearly all of its neighboring properties on the north side of that street. Moving the address and the driveway to Linda Lane would have a negative effect by resulting in less overall compliance to our zoning ordinances.”
Weber also noted, “changing the address of this property by moving the driveway to Linda Lane would reduce the compliance not only of the property itself, but also of the streetscape of Linda Lane, where all the other houses have substantially larger street frontage and are thus situated to ‘belong’ to this small neighborhood. It would also reduce the compliance of the streetscape along Ashland Road by turning what was once a front yard into an effective rear yard, in opposition to the other houses on that side of the street.”
Hurley, who lives on Ashland Road, replied that, while developers have been doing a great deal to improve properties in the city containing dilapidated homes, he is aware that some proposals have been overdoing it.
He cited one development on Ashland that, he said, is too big for the property and doesn’t seem to fit with the character of the neighborhood.
City community services director Paul Cascais noted that, while current city tree regulations allow removing trees of up to 16 inches in circumference without a permit, proposals have been made to decrease that amount to 14 inches.
City solicitor Albert Cruz said he would meet with the zoning officer and other city officials and gather more information from area residents this week to determine if there was any need for the city to take action in the situation.
On another matter, Cruz ruled that Ogden should recuse herself from discussions and a vote on an ordinance that would involve assessments for the cost of improvements on among other streets, the street on which she lives.
Rubino and Hurley contended that Ogden should not have to recuse herself because their understanding of state ethics laws did not require recusal.
Rubino said the Council had received ethics training about this issue in Summit, as well as at the league of municipalities conference, and "the ethics rules are clear. Items bridging any governing body that involve greater than 300 citizens do not require a recusal of the elected official if they happen to one of the citizens affected. Voting on a public road that is used by the majority of the city would be inclusive of this."
Naidu, an attorney, said, however, that he would defer to the advice of an attorney who had expertise in an area in which he did not and who was hired by the council to advise it.
McTernan said the decision whether to recuse herself ultimately was up to Ogden.
She did recuse herself and the ordinance was adopted.
Ed Mokuvos, who is retiring from the Summit Auxiliary Police after 16 years of service, was honored with a proclamation by Radest and cited by police officials and the Summit Common Council at the council’s second June meeting.
Auxiliary department commander and Summit Police Sergeant Matthew Buntin called Mokuvos a life-long friend, noting the fact that the retiring lieutenant had completed the auxiliary police academy at the top of his class at age 54, when most auxiliary police complete the academy in their 20s or 30s.
Buntin also praised Mokuvos for his service as a former board of education member and former first aid squad member.
In a second presentation, Radest cited the character education program at the city’s Lincoln-Hubbard School and school principal Matthew Carlin and Summit Police Officer Charles Daly for supporting and conducting the program.
The mayor also pointed out that the program had been singled out for recognition by the National Forum on Character Education.