June 1, 2016
We invited Mayor Fort and Larry Lelah to sit down with us for a conversation prior to next week’s primary. Mr. Lelah declined; Mayor Fort spent a recent evening sharing her experience and her views on issues of concern to residents. Following is a summary of that discussion for your consideration before the election:
On why the Township Committee voted to appeal the airport decision: There were several things we felt were dangerous with letting it stand, including that it unilaterally changes the zoning of all the property there. There are solid legal grounds, and we're not ready to roll over.
If Readington wins the appeal, then what? It’s possible that Solberg could appeal the appeal, and go to the Supreme Court. Otherwise the surrounding 625 acres remains zoned AR [agriculture], and they would pay taxes on it as AR; the rest is zoned airport.
What is the status of the airport’s property taxes? That's part of the appeal - Tinder [the appraiser appointed by Judge Ciccone to appraise the airport] disregarded our tax assessor and gave them a very low tax bill - if you divide number of years they didn't pay taxes by the amount of taxes they’re being told to pay, it's less than the average resident pays on their house. We’re concerned about that.
On the township’s existing zoning and Master Plan: Our Master Plan has evolved with a lot of care over the years. It is a fluid document, and we are considering some rezoning even now. We expect to keep the balance around 98% residential/preserved open space. We’re open to develop more business, and actively looking to attract them in the current business zones in Whitehouse Station and Three Bridges. We also must comply with affordable housing mandate. I’m proud of our Master Plan, and what it preserves in Readington.
What are we doing to foster business growth in those areas? I have always been interested in meeting with businesses looking to come to Readington. I’ve heard some complaints that our process is burdensome, but there are reasons for the complexity. We’re responsive to businesses and meeting with a lot of them. There’s talk about forming a business association, while right now it’s hard to see what exactly will work. Our population is not dense enough to support a tremendous amount of retail business, and that’s also hurt by online shopping. We have enough nail salons, pizza places, hair cutters, etc. I’d love to see a brew pub in Three Bridges and Whitehouse Station, and that wouldn’t be a problem with a liquor license – which is not available in Readington anyway. We listen to proposals, we plan wisely, and give encouragement to businesses that want to come here, but we won’t roll over and play dead.
What about Merck? We work with the NJ Business Action Center that is trying to find tenants for the Merck property. We’re very supportive of that, but not to the point where anything goes, I’m looking for what will work for Readington.
What should we know about the Affordable Housing issue? We don't have a lot of say in this, and we still don't know what our number is. It might be as much as 700-800 units. We’re looking to see how to do it with the least impact on the community in general. If we have to build 800 units that would make a difference in Readington. Plus, when you put the ‘builder remedy’ on top [4 units of regular market-priced homes for every affordable unit] that would be enormous. We’re looking for developers who will negotiate on this, which could result in greater up-front investment on the town's part. Once the number of units is released by the state they have to be built over 10 years. We are looking for as many different ways to do this as possible. They have to be on a sewer, which definitely limits the locations where they can be built. It’s a mandate that has to be handled with tweezers not with shovels. When combined with the ‘builder's remedy’ it could use all our sewer allocations. We’re looking at options for handling this. It’s very much in flux, and we’re seeking to do it in the best way possible for both the new residents and the town; it will be a challenge to determine how to absorb it without too much stress and change. We are in touch with Kip [Bateman} and Jack [Ciattarelli], who are working in the right direction, and met about a month ago with a couple of people from the governor’s office. They have heard universally that the single thing town officials are most concerned about is the implications of affordable housing. As local official, I sign all the bills, and it’s evident that this is a windfall for developers. These funds should be going towards the affordable housing itself and not the attorneys, planners & other professionals, but we have no choice in the matter if we want to stay compliant. During the past rounds of COAH, municipalities were required to submit plans and progress reports to obtain certification--in other words, to show that they were doing what they were supposed to be doing. Readington had always been compliant, and in fact was the only municipality in Hunterdon County to obtain what is known as Third Round Substantive Certification, which means that we were meeting our affordable housing obligations well.
You sent a letter to residents with some of your accomplishments from your term. Do you want to speak to some of those? Something I’m excited about is that lighted signs are ready (for install) to improve safety at the dangerous intersection of 523 and 629. It can be frustrating that it takes forever to get anything done - it took 1.5 years to get some tree improvements in Whitehouse. I got the lights done within a year; we needed funds and County approvals. It will take a whole lot longer to improve the medians on Rt 22, but we’re on it. We have 25 median cuts in a 5 mile stretch of Rt. 22. This job is not always about the things that make headlines; I’m proud of saving the dog park. Though it’s nominally under Readington Recreation, volunteers have taken it over and people are really happy to have it. It makes the town better.
What are some of the challenges on the job? There are a lot of greedy lawyers out there - they get in line to sue us, and that's frustrating because we're pretty good at negotiating and working with people but their default approach is to sue. A lot of time and money is spent on legal fights. Thor Solberg is frustrating. The town has proposed some pretty nice solutions over the years, including a museum, a restaurant, safety improvements, and additional hangar space) and he won't let go of the runway length issue. This has been going on since I lived here. I grew up near a small airport, and loved it. I used to go watch the planes. I’m frustrated that the Solberg family has been unwilling to budge. What else? Things always take longer than they should. The people are spectacular, the volunteers are fantastic.
When you talk to residents what issues do they bring up? My favorite comment was at the tree lighting last December, when someone asked 'why don't we ever have a young mayor?’ Taxes are always a concern to residents. We are in the middle of the pack on taxes. We are competitive with comparable towns. People are tired of the legal fees, and they have Solberg fatigue but my read is that it’s not accompanied by surrender. They want it solved but don't want the Township to walk away from the fight. Some people move out here from further east and want streetlights. I always suggest they give it time and see if they get used to it.
Is there anything that can be done about all the cyclists in town? They create a real safety hazard. Big races have to come to the town for permission; the greater hazard are all the small groups of cyclists that ride in clusters. There’s not a lot we can do, they have rights to share the road, and it’s very hard to enforce.
Township debt was $70M, and is now $54M. Is it a good feeling to see it go down? Absolutely. We knew the State and Green acres dollars were coming as reimbursements on Open Space and preservation investments. When we get that money is has to go to the debt. Complaints about the debt are often a euphemism for 'cancel the Solberg bond'. We've been working to get the debt down. It's not just the airport, it's the roads, it’s pieces of emergency equipment, because whenever you bond it creates debt. The State sets a maximum, and we're at about 1/3 of that amount. Our bond rating is good, and our finances are stable.