SUMMIT, NJ - In its second consecutive three-plus hour meeting this month, the Summit Common Council navigated a varied terrain, with Affordable Housing -- both approved and proposed -- along with potential limitations on plastic usage and economic development all receiving considerable attention and time.

First, however, Council bid farewell to Marge Gerba, City treasurer and CFO, who is retiring after eight years.

Summit Mayor Nora Radest said Gerba “stepped in at a time of flux and did an incredible job,” while answering all questions “honestly, with a smile, and very professionally.” Radest pointed to the City’s AAA rating and comment-free audit. Gerba was presented with the traditional chair bearing the City seal.

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Ward 1 Council Member Mike McTernan, past chair of the finance committee, noted how easy it had been to select Gerba, because everyone spoke so highly of the person “right under out noses.” He added that she excelled at making people understand how arcane numbers worked, saying, “Numbers are tough; municipal numbers are even harder.”

Beth Little, Council Member at-large and current finance committee chair, considered herself lucky to have had Gerba as a mentor. She observed that when interviewing job candidates, they usually talk about things they’d change and do better, but those interviewing for Gerba’s job “said they couldn’t really do that here in Summit because everything was so well run.”

Affordable Housing

Residents of Ashwood Court were in attendance in full force, and when the podium was opened to public comments, many shared their ongoing concerns with the Habitat for Humanity decision.

Robin Dobiszewski, Ashwood Court, was concerned that her little neighborhood was being destroyed. Referring to the multiple converging driveways to be built on the court, she said “our kids are being put in danger” and “there’s no way to make it safe.” She asserted that no traffic study had been done, and asked why it feels that Habitat for Humanity is dictating what happens.

Council President David Naidu replied that the safety of every resident is important, but that Council can’t solve everyone’s problems. While Council appoints members to the zoning board, for example, it has no other control over the board, which is a judicatory body.

City Solicitor Matthew Giacobbe explained that Habitat for Humanity has a contractual relationship with the City and received $1.2 million from the Affordable Housing trust fund, but those facts have no bearing on its building application. He said it’s actually a crime for a Council Member to interfere with the workings of the zoning board, but citizens have the right for 45 days after a decision is published to make an appeal through Superior Court.

Giacobbe also addressed the pleas to “change the ordinance” requiring ingress / egress in a new development to connect to the lesser-traveled road. That ordinance has existed for decades, and state law says any ordinances in effect when a building application is filed remain in effect for that project.

Linda Gagliano, Michigan Avenue, said the zoning board’s resolution acknowledged that there are negative impacts, but the project is “consistent with the City’s objectives for this location” and “use is intended to be in this location by the governing body.” She questioned if the board was truly autonomous.

Naidu provided background information, that in settling the Fair Share lawsuit, Summit was required to come up with fair share housing throughout the city. He also noted the Affordable Housing plan had been discussed publicly in various venues for two years. Radest pointed out that whoever bought the Italian-American Club site being discussed could legally erect nine units there; the zoning board merely granted a density variance adding three units.

Walter Kraft, Ashwood Court, identified himself as a civil engineer and traffic engineer. “A strong community is made up of strong neighborhoods.” He quoted the introduction to Summit’s general design standards, “to promote the general welfare of Summit, to encourage the most appropriate use of land, for construction and alteration... and to discourage any use of land where such construction or use will adversely affect the use and enjoyment of adjacent or nearby property or the health or welfare of the citizens of the City.” He suggested the driveways from the Habitat for Humanity buildings running through Ashwood Court would have such adverse effects. Calling the Council members “problem solvers,” he asked for their help.

Alejandra Gurevich, an Ashwood Court property owner, reiterated that a promised traffic study never materialized, yet the resolution was passed. She felt nobody was listening to the Ashwood residents’ concerns. She made the point that if there could be a density variance granted, why couldn’t there be a variance to the egress ordinance? “It wasn’t an impossible project (to move the exit to Morris Avenue); it was not like a portal into another dimension.”

Tara Gagliano, Ashwood Court, said she has spent most of her year-old daughter’s life fighting for her safety and that of the other children on the Court. She questioned how two six-unit buildings are compatible with the duplexes already there. She also questioned why, if affordable housing is supposed to blend into its surroundings, there will be a sign proclaiming Habitat for Humanity’s presence at the entrance to their neighborhood. Reminded again that existing ordinances apply to an application, Gagliano expressed dismay that she and her neighbors would have to spend $35-50,000 on a legal appeal.

Naidu acknowledged the residents’ frustration, but that everyone should “appreciate an impartial and fair application of the law by the governing body.”

A Capital Projects & Community Services resolution moved by Ward 2 Council Member Marjorie Fox also dealt with affordable housing. Because it appeared late in the agenda, Naidu moved it to the front of the resolution lineup. It authorizes K&R Real Estate, LLC, to provide offsite affordable housing in a condominium unit at 412 Morris Avenue, and to pay the equivalent of 0.6 of a unit in cash ($110,809.80) to the Affordable Housing trust fund.

The builder’s counsel, Bartholomew Sheehan of Dempsey, Dempsey & Sheehan, explained that eight condominium units are to be built on a tract at 59 New England Avenue. The 20% affordable housing set-aside translates to 1.6 units. The proposed tract combines land previously owned by Christ Church and by the Dominican Monastery, and is irregular and has a grade change. Because a buffer is required between the new buildings and the cloistered monastery, no part of the tract is suitable for a structure that meets the specific requirements for an affordable housing unit. Such a unit must have two means of access for fire safety, be handicap-accessible, and be indistinguishable from the market units. None of the market-rate units will be handicap-accessible, either.

Consequently, K&R obtained a two-bedroom condo at 412 Morris Avenue that would be a deed-restricted affordable unit, though indistinguishable from its neighbors. K&R worked with Habitat for Humanity to find a space that conforms to its requirements.

McTernan asked if the Morris Avenue unit would be handicap-accessible; K&R Principal Matthew Karpa replied that isn’t, and needn’t be because as an existing unit, it’s not subject to the same rules as new construction. Sheehan said their search turned up no available units that would meet those restrictions. Their criteria did include proximity to their building site and the ability to deed-restrict the unit.

Leslie Salcedo lives at 412 Morris Avenue, and said this is the first she’d heard of this plan. She wanted to know if it would affect the value of her condo, and if K&R anticipated buying more units there. Sheehan said the 30-year deed restriction means the occupants would have to qualify through Habitat for Humanity to buy there, while the rest of the building would continue to be subject to market forces. Radest pointed out that there are affordable units scattered throughout buildings throughout town. K&R does not plan to purchase another unit there.

While Council seemed less than happy that the unit was not part of K&R’s building site, and Naidu pointed out that this wasn’t meant to set a precedent for future developers, the resolution passed.

Economic Development

In other business, the chair of the Economic Development Advisory Committee (EDAC), Jonathan Betz, offered an overview of his young organization’s progress. The EDAC was approved by Council in April 2018. A number of committee members were in attendance. Betz revealed that about 20% of the City revenues come from commercial ratables, and of that, about 70% comes from a single employer, Celgene. The EDAC’s focus is on increasing and diversifying the revenue stream, “while maintaining the quality of life in Summit.”

He explained his organization doesn’t compete with Summit Downtown Inc., the zoning board, or the planning board.

After speaking with stakeholders including residents, business owners, and investors, the committee learned several things: Summit lacks consistent messaging to attract businesses, Neighborhood Business Districts (NBDs) present a big opportunity, and demand for downtown business space is high.

Neighborhood Business Districts fit with the City Master Plan’s objective that “the town should make should make some investment in examining the NBDs in a very targeted way.” The EDAC takes that as an opportunity to ask “what should be happening?” He referred to a City-commissioned study of the Ashwood and Broad NBD, but emphasized that the report’s recommendations are merely that, and not necessarily what the City should be pursuing at this point. He said his committee will proceed carefully, and with a lot of community input.

In New Jersey, the overall Class A commercial space vacancy rate is 23.9%; Class B, 21.8%; and all classes, 23.2%. The equivalent vacancies in Summit are 1.2%, 1.5%, and 1.7%. “Global professional services firms love locating in town,” he said, even with Class A space going for $50 / square foot. However, large tenants want larger spaces, and the existing ownership structure of buildings creates hurdles to infusing new capital. He said Summit needs to encourage landowners to take on new investment or invest some of their own capital to build out more of downtown.

The group has set a number of action items for itself. The marketing subgroup has identified a set of themes including an excellent infrastructure and a vibrant and engaged community, and plans to promote that online. In September, the committee will host a meeting in the Ashwood and Broad NBD to get feedback from residents on the kinds of businesses they see today, what they’d like to see, and other issues. Finally, they’ll keep doing diligence on what’s driving the landowners in the CBD, and what would make additional investment more appealing to them.

Matt Gould, Ward 1 council member, asked where to put businesses the committee attracts. Betz said by increasing demand, it may help to increase supply, by encouraging, for example, the owner of a one-story building who’s able to increase it to three floors to do so. As a resident, Gould asked about the Morris-Butler NBD. Betz said they can’t do everything at once, and that area has had more “organic investment” already.

Gurevich pressed for the plans for her neighborhood. Betz replied that there was nothing yet to share, as they haven’t done their community engagement yet. He noted the area has “light industrial” business like landscaping and auto shops, which may serve the City overall but not necessarily serve the needs of that community. The EDAC will be going to the people “not with answers but with questions.”

Recycling Initiatives

Karen Raihofer, chair of the Recycling Advisory Committee, presented an update on the 'Skip the Straw' campaign launched last November. RAC volunteers visited 75 establishments; 58 agreed to display campaign literature. Many have eliminated or minimized straw use or are in the process of doing so. She called the program “overall well-received.”

Raihofer said the market for recyclables has significantly changed, and “we cannot recycle our way our of our plastic problem.” She cited how microplastics have been found nearly everywhere on the planet, even in foodstuffs. Studies show the average plastic bag has a use of 10-20 minutes but takes 10 to hundreds of years to decompose.

As of July 2018, 127 countries have adopted some form of legislation to regulate plastic bags. Closer to home, six states have banned single-use plastic bags and more than 200 municipalities have ordinances banning or taxing them.

In the Garden State, 18 municipalities and one county have some form of restriction; another 12 have passed ordinances which will soon go into effect. New Jersey legislators have indicated that more local ordinances will help influence a state-level ban. She did admit that alternative kinds of bags have their own drawbacks, and that bans or fees on plastic bags can impact working families, seniors, and disabled people, although exemptions can be legislated.

Regarding Summit, she pointed out that local businesses were receptive to the 'Skip the Straw' campaign. The City was collecting plastic film at the transfer station in partnership with a local supermarket, as part of the Trex collection; after several months, the supermarket said it could no longer accept plastic bags because the volume was too great. Trex used recycled plastic films to make a variety of plastic products like decking and fencing. The 'Bags to Benches' program has collected to date over 2,900 pounds of plastic film in 10 months. Green Summit’s survey showed residents’ number one priority was a plastic bag restriction. This year, plastic bags were banned at the Farmers Market, and the ban hasn’t negatively affected sales.

She suggested next steps could include a broader survey to determine if the wider community “has an appetite for a ban”, meeting with business owners, speaking with leaders in towns which have implemented or are considering restrictions, and doing research to create the most effective ordinance. Likening plastic to an oil spill, yet recognizing that plastic does have its uses, she described the goal as “end[ing] our throwaway habits.”

Raihofer closed with a personal anecdote. Some years ago, moved by the film An Inconvenient Truth to make a number of changes in her lifestyle, she was asked by her grandmother, “Why are you being so extreme?” Raihofer asked her how she used to carry home her groceries. Her grandmother paused, then laughed. “I brought my own bags.”

Naidu mentioned various groups – Green Summit, eighth graders, fifth graders – who have spoken before Council about reducing plastic use. He expressed his own support for a ban on single-use plastic bags, Styrofoam, and plastic straws. His only question would be how much time to give businesses using those items to make the necessary changes.

Little noted the issue is “green” as in finances, too. When the City’s recycling contract is renegotiated, it will cost Summit significantly more, in part because the Chinese market for these materials has dried up. She also expressed support for restrictions implemented in a “thoughtful and measured way.”

DPW Director Paul Cascais described how plastic bags in the regular recycling stream get caught in the recyclers’ machines, shutting down the process for as much as four hours a day. They’d like to see communities ban plastic bags from the collection stream. Raihofer added that she toured the Giordano recycling facility, which has had to install a new overhead duct system to suction up plastic bags because so many bags are mixed in.

Radest cautioned against making businesses bear the cost of any restrictions. Raihofer and Naidu countered that any bag fees would be kept by the businesses, and with a ban, they would no longer have to purchase bags or straws.

Ward 2 Council Member Stephen Bowman observed that with few national chains in town, it should be easier to move forward. He also asked about dry cleaning bags. Raihofer said these can be included in the Trex collections, and that at least one dry cleaner allows customers to use reusable garment bags.

McTernan said the approach of talking to people, as the committee has done with the straw campaign, is the best way to change behavior. He did say he opposed a diktat implementing a ban, calling it a “slippery slope.” He would much prefer educating people over “telling people how to live their life.” He also observed that if the Council were to implement a ban, and the people hated it, they’d vote the Council Members out. He’d much rather have choices.

Donna Patel, Beekman Road, chair of the Environmental Commission, stepped up to give the commission’s support to Raihofer’s presentation and share its wish to see this move forward as well. She mentioned the steps Chatham and Millburn had taken to draft their own ordinances and get citizen input. She also shared two recycling tips: don’t put plastic bags in curbside recycling, and don ‘t put recycling in a plastic bag.

Student Talia Gould, Webster Avenue, daughter of Council Member Gould, said the plastic problem has been “ignored for decades,” and that we must take the “opportunity to help save the planet.” She added her support for a plastics ban.

Karen Venturella, Lewis Avenue, urged Council to take action, saying, “I feel like we’re kicking the can down the road.”

Naidu closed the presentation by stating government’s responsibility “is to take care of the health and welfare of its residents... We should spend the next couple of months... looking at this issue and then, hopefully before the end of this year, have a clear path forward that can be presented to Council and the public of how we’re going to get this done.”

Ordinances and Resolutions

Greg Vartan, Ward 2 Council Member, moved an ordinance to allow parking on both sides of Lincoln Avenue with a two-hour time limit between 8 a.m. and 6 p.m. Currently parking on the east side of the street is prohibited.

McTernan noted that parking for the many businesses in that area is difficult. Since Lincoln was formerly a two-way street and is now one-way, it is wide enough to safely accommodate the additional parking. He called it good for both businesses and consumers. The ordinance passed on a unanimous roll call vote.

Moving on to resolutions, Bowman moved one under Law & Labor appointing Tammarae Baldwin as Treasurer/Chief Financial Officer. Her past positions include assistant business administrator for Union Township and CFO of Chatham Borough. Also moved was a resolution declaring a vacancy in the Department of Community Services, Division of Public Works, due to a resignation.

Vartan moved a Safety & Health resolution authorizing the purchase through a state contract of self-containing breathing apparatus for the Fire Department for $167,876.30. The apparatus, which has a 10-year life span, is critical for fighting fires. Vartan explained the units are usually purchased over a course of three years, but that by buying a larger number over two years, the City is saving approximately $40,000.

Gould moved three Community Programs & Parking Services resolutions. The first awards a bid to All State Technology Inc. to resurface the Family Aquatic Center pool for $222,000. He said the City had hoped to do this last year, but pushed it off until the Community Center construction was completed. The work will be done at the end of the season, and is already in the capital budget. His second resolution authorized the submission of a grant application to the Union County Kids Recreation Trust Fund. Summit applies every year and the fund has yielded some “nice awards.” The city seeks $95,000 in matching funds to improve the Tatlock Field track. The 13-year-old track is well beyond its eight-year anticipated lifespan. Fox pointed out that track and cross country are the high school’s largest athletic teams, and that during the spring, some 150 students run track.

Gould’s third resolution authorized the renewal of an agreement under which the U.S. Post Office leases 13 parking spaces. The post office has been arrears for some time. Because the post office is in the Broad Street redevelopment zone, the new lease will be on a month-to-month rather than an annual basis. Parking Services Manager Rita McNany explained the parking authority made repeated requests for payment and received no response. Finally the prospect of eviction from the lot prodded them into action and obtained an assurance that a check for the arrears would be sent promptly. Administrator Michael Rogers further explained that as the existing contract had expired, the post office lacked the authorization to pay. The new contract clears up that procedural difficulty. The post office will pay $80 / month / vehicle, the standard rate as set by ordinance.

Fox’s remaining Capital Projects & Community Services resolutions included one authorizing a grant application to the NJDOT Bikeways Program for improvements to the Park Line Phase 1. This would provide access for bicyclists and pedestrians on Morris Avenue and Broad Street, completing the sidewalk network there. The $1 million grant requires no matching funds. Also moved was a resolution to approve and support Reeves-Reed Arboretum’s application to the Preserve Union County grant program, asking for $10,100 to repair its historic stone stairs. The Arboretum will fund the 50% match. Another authorizes the online auction of 17 unneeded city vehicles and pieces of equipment through Municibid. Cascais reported the previous auction brought in approximately $70,000.

Fox moved the purchase of roofing through the Educational Services Commission of NJ Cooperative Pricing System for two DPW buildings. The aging roofs are rubber, and are leaking. The $288,529.41 cost will be funded by the 2019 capital budget and 2015 sewer utility budget. Also moved was a resolution authorizing an agreement with Union County to modify a cooperative agreement for certain community development block grants. Summit does this annually to qualify for funding. Her final resolution authorizes applying for a 2020 Greening Union County grant to fund the planting of 100 trees. The grant requires a 50% match of $15,000 and will be included in the 2020 capital budget. Gould appreciated the variety of trees selected, but Naidu suggested more than 40 of them should be native species. “Native trees help native fauna.” Cascais pointed out the trees were chosen by the city forester from a list put forth by the NJ Shade Tree Commission. Many of them are especially recommended for challenging areas such as those with a lot of asphalt nearby.

All resolutions passed.