Editor’s note: The Morristown Planning Board may adopt the revised town zoning master plan, titled “Morristown Moving Forward,” on Tuesday, March 4, 2014. The meeting starts at 7 pm at town hall. The opinions expressed below are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of MorristownGreen.com.
By Margret Brady
This Tuesday, March 3, 2014, at 7 pm, the Morristown Planning Board has scheduled a public hearing and final vote to adopt a document that will determine the future direction of Morristown.
If you have ever wondered why someone was allowed to build a new building in Morristown, or why you had to get a variance to add another foot to your deck, or why you can’t park a car in your front yard, then you have not learned that in New Jersey, every municipality is required to have a periodically updated Master Plan.
It is that legal document, as required by 40:55D-28 of the Municipal Land Use Law of New Jersey, that is the basis for all zoning and planning decisions made.
The Master Plan must determine how the public health, safety and general welfare of the community will be protected. According to the law, certain elements are required to be a part of the plan, including a report or statement of any land use and development proposals with maps, diagrams and text, setting forth the means by which the use of the lands within the municipality will best serve its goals and objectives. Ten specifics aspects are required to be addressed in a Master Plan including land use, housing and circulation.
Most of us would agree that there are changes that need to be made but unfortunately, the plan before us on Tuesday does not address most of the concerns about what really needs to be changed.
When a developer brings a proposal to the town, he must demonstrate how his project conforms to the Master Plan. If a homeowner applies for a building permit, the zoning map and laws that apply to his property were created according to the findings outlined in the Master Plan. This plan glosses over the importance of preserving our residential homes throughout Morristown, no matter what zone they are in.
For 219 years, Morristown was developed according to the wishes of the owners of the largest properties. By the time Morristown adopted its first zoning ordinance in 1929, our main roads had already been established and our town already had a mix of uses in almost every area of Town. For the next 85 years, changes often depended on who was Mayor at any given time, or the economic or environmental circumstances of the era.
Some of those plans, like the 30-story high rise zone in the ’60s or the plan to create a Pocahontas Parkway through the middle of the Second Ward in the ’80s went down in flames.
Other projects and plans met with mixed success. Many have wished they could replace Headquarters Plaza or Madison Avenue office buildings with something of lesser impact on the neighborhoods. The loss of many historic buildings that were replaced with lesser quality examples of architecture are frequently lamented. The new plan is an opportunity to correct old mistakes instead of encouraging more of the same.
Morristown Moving Forward is a document prepared to capture the thoughts and ideas presented at a series of public gatherings where a few hundred people placed dots on maps, wrote ideas on sticky pads and pasted them on story boards. Open to everyone. It did not matter if you lived in town or were hired representatives of a special interest group or corporation. All were welcome to offer their input.
You could point out where you lived or worked on a big map and identify those intersections or trouble spots that bothered you the most and this method, which avoided getting specific, was explained as a new way to develop a Master Plan. New concepts, new ideas, and yes, a new vision.
That vision– to become the most beautiful, healthy, resilient, and sustainable place to live, work, and play in New Jersey–could apply to almost any New Jersey municipality.
With much fanfare, the document detailing how this was to happen was unveiled in January. But the only way a citizen could obtain a copy was to download it from the town website, or if you were in the know, the Moving Forward website.
The plan was difficult to read with many costly-to-print full-color pictures, unrelated to the Morristown of many neighborhoods that I identify with here in Franklin Corners. The change we heard about most at public meetings was the idea of converting parking spaces throughout the town into mini-parks.
The emphasis on that idea died down after the plan’s first public hearing. It was soon obvious, as people lined up to ask about Morristown Moving Forward, that parklets were not their idea of what would improve Morristown when the new plan suggested that schools, churches and nonprofits now would become permitted uses anywhere in town.
The new planners were unaware that in at least 15 identified neighborhoods in Morristown, there already were many schools, churches, half-way houses and service organizations that had a negative impact on those neighborhoods.
It became obvious that when the planners had studied the ways to enable traffic to pass more quickly through the town, they had not considered how diverting traffic from some streets would only move it through the more residential streets.
However, determined to meet the deadline to get the new Master Plan passed, they made few changes and after letting some neighborhoods influence changes without considering the town as a whole, they simply called a halt to input and pushed for this vote on March 4.
Why? This is not the first time Morristown planners made stupid mistakes, and probably not the last.
Why must we use this artificial deadline to avoid correcting those mistakes and correcting the erroneous conclusions, influenced more by special interests than the taxpayers, who will be forced not only to deal with the negative impact of permitting this new zoning plan, but who also will have to pay the higher taxes that will result?
Does any Morristown resident want an eight-story building casting shadows on their patio, or cars rushing by on a former local street that has been designated a major traffic corridor in the new plan? Why can’t we consider the loss of character caused by encouraging the demolition of many historic structures due to the proposed new densities. My list goes on and on.
A favorite Chinese proverb of mine says: “A man who only looks back has one blind eye, but the man who only looks forward has two blind eyes.”
Do we really want to Move Forward with this plan?
Margret Brady is a former Morristown councilwoman and a member of the Morristown Parking Authority.