Responding to concerns, Morristown planners scale back churches and nonprofits in master plan

By Margret Brady

Responding to public concerns, Morristown planners have eliminated a proposal that would have allowed churches and nonprofits to build and expand everywhere in town.

Planners also agreed to reconsider redevelopment in the Second Ward once new flood maps and regulations, expected within a year or two, are completed by environmental agencies.

These and other revisions to the zoning master plan, announced Thursday at a special planning board hearing, stemmed from recent huddles between planners and neighborhood groups. The proposed changes–42 of them in all– helped defuse what otherwise might have been a long and contentious evening.

“I think we’re about 80 percent there,” said Chris Martin, a Fourth Ward resident who retains strong ties to the Second Ward.

When town planners and Second Ward residents sat down together last week in town hall, there was “a lot of passion,” Martin said.

From left, William and Islin Johnson and Helen Arnold listen to planning board member Debbie Gottsleben. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

From left, William and Islin Johnson and Helen Arnold listen to planning board member Debbie Gottsleben. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

Master plans establish guidelines for growth, and New Jersey towns must upgrade them every decade. Morristown officials hope this year to approve a new plan that took shape following public brainstorming sessions and online surveys in 2013.  A revised draft of the document is anticipated on Feb. 1, with another hearing on Feb. 20.

The Rev. Sidney Williams Jr., pastor of Bethel A.M.E. Church in the Second Ward, took exception to the initial 142-page draft  because it appeared to take away church parking while dismissing the possibility of affordable housing at Coal Avenue and Bishop Nazery Way, a flood plain of the Whippany River.

The pastor contends there may be ways to tame the floods. Town Planner Daniel Hernandez of Topology NJ said finding the answers will be “a priority” after flood maps are updated by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

“We need to determine whatever is the best use for that property,” Hernandez said after Thursday’s planning board meeting. “We would not support anything that would put people in harm’s way.”

Hernandez chalked up the church parking issue to a misunderstanding. “It was never our intent to take away parking,” he said.


James Kersey and other Second Ward residents thanked planners for listening to their concerns about flooding and the delicate balance of uses around Abbett and Ridgedale avenues. Residents said they worry that already crowded streets will see even more traffic from proposed increased densities nearby.

Hernandez and fellow planner Phil Abramson explained that until new flood plain maps and rules are released, all development of those areas will be on hold.

A big issue at the first master plan hearing in December was where to allow churches and nonprofits. The new plan proposed allowing them everywhere, which struck planning board Member Debbie Gotsleben as a bad idea. She feared that towns would send their schools here, to spare their own neighborhoods.

Although the state deems churches and nonprofits as inherently beneficial, they can negatively affect neighborhoods, residents argued. So planners reverted to the existing zoning.The new master plan will address the impact of churches and nonprofits  on traffic, noise, light pollution and property buffer zones whenever they apply for permission to build or expand.PACKED HOUSE

So many people packed the council chambers on Thursday that the planning board quickly ran out of 10-page handouts for the public, prompting town Zoning Officer Jim Campbell to dash upstairs to print more copies.

The planners gave overviews of the master plan’s mobility and street plan, its land use and community form plan, and its plan for places, and then discussed revisions to each section.

Planners Daniel Hernandez and Phil Abramson share a light moment with Councilwoman Alison Deeb after master plan hearing. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

Planners Daniel Hernandez and Phil Abramson share a light moment with Councilwoman Alison Deeb after master plan hearing. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

First Ward residents Peter Gilpatric and Candyce Hoffman noted that their own presentations were prepared prior to the master plan revisions. Still, they called for further study of development pressures and the unique character of the Franklin Corners neighborhood.

Gilpatric wanted clarification about where public comments originated. They both felt there should be better ways to identify and describe neighborhoods.

Many speakers expressed a desire to protect and preserve the quality of life in all neighborhoods, and to appreciate struggles made by residents to protect it.

Greater protections also are needed for the habitat and wildlife at Foote’s Pond, said Chris Martin.

More specific guidelines are necessary before moving to other meetings and a final plan, said resident Mark Bender. Speakers generally advocated for better traffic patterns, with an emphasis on pedestrian and biker needs.

Kevin Coughlin contributed to this report.



  1. Dick Tighe says:

    The Planners, Abramson & Hernandez, have really done an excellent job of reaching out to the town residents and incorporating their concerns and ideas. It’s the first time, I think, the town has had professional planners, of this caliber, executing a plan for the entire town.

    I found it interesting that one of the town council members (Deeb) , even after a warning from the Board attorney (there were five councilmember present, which is a quorum), felt compelled to ask a question and express concerns on topics the planners had already addressed. It was a clear violation of the Open Meetings Act, as the attorney had pointed out.

    While it was great to see the Councilmembers attend the meeting, showing their concern, it would have been better if all complied with the law.

  2. Margret Brady says:

    Since Deeb arrived late in the meeting, she could not have heard the announcement about the quorum and one of the other councilpersons may already have left. Also, I believe the quorum law does not ban elected officials to attend the same gathering as long as they do not lobby or function as a body and the announcement was to let them know that other councilpersons were present. Many years ago Judge Gasgoyne in one of his rulings regarding a suit filed by a developer asserting that the Master Plan had been tainted because a Councilperson asked questions at a Board of Adjustment meeting, made a point to say such laws would make no sense if they prevented elected officials from becoming informed. He ruled that they may even ask questions as long as the questions are for information purposes or to clarify the record.
    I agree that the new firm of planners hired by the Town are more professional then the last but the Town has used other experienced, professional professional planners in the past, who might resent Mr. Tighe’s comments, which I’m sure were not intended to belittle their skills. Our last planner was an engineer, who according to NJ law could call himself a planner even though that was not what he had been trained to do and he had no actual planning degree.
    Our new planners have good credentials, although new to Morristown. It is to their credit that they are attempting to address what appeared to be some oversights in the way the public hearings were planned. Without special meetings for residents, those from other towns and special interests often dominated the discussions. Many residents were waiting for neighborhood meetings similar to those held for several master plan revisions in 1977, the 1980s and 1990s until the last Cresitello administration decided to omit as much public participation as possible.
    When Daniel and Philip of Topography, the current planning firm learned of this oversight, they began to schedule additional meetings with neighborhood representatives which resulted in many of the revisions announced last week. They will continue to meet with residents and neighborhood groups as requested.

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