Neighborhoods dominate first discussion of Morristown master plan

At its first public hearing, Morristown’s new zoning master plan was described as a work in progress.

Town planners left Saturday’s three-and-a-half-hour presentation with their work cut out for them.

“A lot of important things were discussed here. We have a lot of homework,” Planner Phil Abramson of Jonathan Rose Companies said after town officials and residents voiced concerns that the 142-page document does not outline enough protections for  neighborhoods that are Morristown’s heart and soul.

Planning board member Deborah Gottsleben talks with Mayor Tim Dougherty after master plan meeting. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

Planning board member Deborah Gottsleben talks with Mayor Tim Dougherty after master plan meeting. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

Planning board member Debbie Gottsleben was especially vexed by a recommendation that would enable churches and schools to build or expand in all zones.

Citing a bad experience when the Peck School expanded in her neighborhood, she expressed worries that other towns might be tempted to send schools here, to spare their own neighborhoods.

“I don’t see the need for schools and churches in all zones,” she said, adding that the draft plan’s liberal stance on expansion of the Morristown Medical Center could spur battles like the one fought in Summit, where residents eventually shot down a heli-pad.

SIX STORIES FOR MORRIS STREET?

Other controversial pieces of the plan–scheduled for additional planning board hearings on Jan. 23 and Feb. 27, 2014– include recommendations to allow six-story buildings on Morris Street and to rezone the mixed-use community at Abbett and Ridgedale avenues as a business zone.

Mayor Tim Dougherty said the purpose of the rare weekend session was to revive public discussions started earlier this year in the “Morristown Moving Forward” campaign, which included town hall-style meetings and a website for comments.

“I’m happy with what I’ve seen so far,” the Mayor said. “We know we’re going to have growth. We’re a desirable community. We want to grow. But we want to grow in a healthy way, that doesn’t stifle or suffocate us.”

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New Jersey municipalities are required to update their master plans every decade.  The plan is a roadmap, to help towns set policies and chart spending, said Daniel Hernandez of Jonathan Rose Companies.

Once adopted by the planning board and town council–Council President Michelle Dupree Harris predicted a final vote by next autumn–the master plan will guide planners in rewriting local zoning laws, Daniel said.

The draft  has taken about a year to create, at a cost of approximately $200,000, Phil Abramson said. Money came from the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation and the town, along with in-kind donations of professional services from the North Jersey Planning Authority, he said.

One goal in the document is to enhance Morristown’s reputation as a pedestrian- and bicycle friendly place.  The plan also notes possibilities for making the train station more of a downtown hub, like train stations in Madison, Maplewood and Summit.

Because the downtown’s center, the historic Morristown Green, is ringed by a congested state-owned road, the town must keep prodding the state Department of Transportation for an engineering study to determine better traffic flow, Phil said.

Several possible traffic reconfigurations, hatched during the master plan process, could nudge the state forward, he said.

No traffic-, commuting- or parking studies were conducted during creation of the plan.

The draft plan purposely does not advocate building multi-family housing at Coal Avenue and Bishop Nazery Way, a flood-prone elbow of the Whippany River. To do so would be “irresponsible,” Phil told the planning board.

CARPS AND KUDOS

Board member Dick Tighe, a Democrat, praised the Mayor’s Morristown Moving Forward initiative and hailed Jonathan Rose Companies as the town’s first professional planners “in 30 years.”

Former Mayor Jay DeLaney – a Republican who also is Debbie Gottsleben’s husband–added kudos for the firm.

At the same time, he quoted his late mentor, the Democratic Mayor David Manahanwho compared residential neighborhoods to the ozone layer.

“When they go, they’re gone,” Jay cautioned.

The sternest critique of the plan came from Margret Brady, a former councilwoman.

“Every time I hear, ‘These are general proposals, something will be defined later,’ it makes my blood run cold,” she said.

Pastor Sidney Williams Jr. of Bethel A.M.E. Church speaks at master plan presentation to Morristown planning board members. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

Pastor Sidney Williams Jr. of Bethel A.M.E. Church speaks at master plan presentation to Morristown planning board members. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

The document was compiled largely by out-of-towners, based on town-wide meetings where details were too vague, Marge said.

Gatherings in neighborhood living rooms would have yielded more specifics, she contended. She pulled no punches about schools and churches, either.

“We need to control the growth of people who do not pay taxes in Morristown,” she said.

Among Saturday’s suggestions:

  • The master plan should add references to dog parks…and also promote zoning that allows bed-and-breakfast establishments, said Councilwoman Alison Deeb.
  • Planners should meet with Second Ward residents to solicit ideas for improving the Route 287 / Ridgedale Avenue interchange, said Councilwoman Raline Smith-Reid.
  • They also should sit down with Second Ward residents to gauge the potential impacts of rezoning the Abbett/Ridgedale neighborhood and allowing six-story contruction near the train station, Raline said.
  • The town should consider hiring off-duty and retired police officers to direct traffic at the busiest intersections, said Larry Cohen, chairman of the zoning board.
  • A recent study by Princeton Hydro should be incorporated into the master plan, urged Bethel A.M.E. Church Pastor Sidney Williams Jr., the key proponent of affordable housing in the flood area. Commissioned by the Whippany River Watershed Action Committee, the study outlines affordable ways to tame the flooding, the minister said.


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