In my prior letters to the editor, I let you know that over the coming weeks, I would remind residents of all the components of my platform. (You can also read the entire platform, which was first published online in mid-April, at www.andy2017.com). This week, let’s talk about land use. I think this is a particularly important topic to address. Candidates without experience or knowledge of New Jersey land use laws make promises they simply cannot keep. They have neither the authority nor power to do what they promise to do. Candidates will lament, “the town should/or should not have ...” It is important that Westfield residents know the facts, and I am confident that when residents know the facts, they will recognize the importance of experience in public office.
To be sure, land use is a very complex matter, residents are sometimes surprised to learn that local land use is not exclusively governed by local ordinance. To the contrary, the laws of the State of New Jersey guide many aspects of local land use as do numerous court rulings, the “equal protection” clause of the 14th Amendment (which guarantee the same rights, privileges, and protections to all citizens), and the “due process” clause of the 14th Amendment (which acts as a safeguard from arbitrary denial of life, liberty, or property by the government outside the sanction of law). Further, private property owners are guaranteed certain inalienable rights over their own property, including, but not limited to, the right to sell their property to whoever they wish, to seek historic designation if the property qualifies for such designation, or to remove the existing structure and rebuild. Such guaranteed private property rights apply to all private property owners regardless if the owner is a resident who occupies a house on the property or if the owner is a developer. The legal framework that protects private property owners from government intrusion simultaneously affords private property owners control of their property’s destiny.
The state’s Municipal Land Use Law does provide the town the authority to regulate zoning and certain building design and placement standards, such as setbacks, building envelope, impervious surface coverage and the like. When we refer to a construction or development project, land use decisions are made only after following a mandated process that oftentimes include public hearings. Depending on the particulars of a proposed project, the approval or disapproval of a development application is decided by a quasi-judicial board – Planning Board if “conforming” and Board of Adjustment if “non-conforming” – and those decisions must be based on the testimony presented, the merits of the application, the applicable sections of the land use ordinance, and other factors. All applicants, whether they are individuals or developers, are entitled to due process and any decisions rendered regarding an application must not be arbitrary or capricious. I have advocated, and will continue to do so, for carefully managing development while, at the same time, making sure that the town is meeting its statutory and court ordered obligations.
When I became mayor, the country was at the height of the “McMansion” movement so one of my first acts was to form the Land Use Task Force, a panel of experts in planning, design, and land use law. The Task Force conducted outreach, performed a comprehensive analysis of re-development issues, and presented recommendations to the town council for changes to the land use ordinance that would balance the public demand for larger houses and more amenities, private property rights, and the community’s interests. The Town then enacted legislation based on the Task Force’s recommendations. In addition, at my urging, the town subsequently updated the Historic Preservation Ordinance and the Tree Preservation Ordinance. These legislative actions were successfully executed on behalf of the community’s best interests without violating private property rights.
From my experience, I know I have to work within New Jersey land use laws and court rulings. To do so, I will continue to appoint responsible, competent, and caring volunteers on our boards to ensure that Westfielders retain their property rights and that Westfield remains one of the top communities in the United States.
Mayor Andy Skibitsky
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