Busy night for Morristown council includes development developments, and earful from ambulance squad

INTO THE RED ZONE: The Morristown planning board will study redevelopment options for a former lumberyard on Elm Street and two parcels on Hill Street (all shaded in red). Map courtesy of Topology.
INTO THE RED ZONE: The Morristown planning board will study redevelopment options for a former lumberyard on Elm Street and two parcels on Hill Street (all shaded in red). Map courtesy of Topology.
INTO THE RED ZONE: The Morristown planning board will study redevelopment options for a former lumberyard on Elm Street and two parcels on Hill Street (all shaded in red). Map courtesy of Topology.
INTO THE RED ZONE: The Morristown planning board will study redevelopment options for a former lumberyard on Elm Street and two parcels on Hill Street (all shaded in red). Map courtesy of Topology.

By Kevin Coughlin

Typically, the dog days of summer are slow times for town governments.

But Morristown is not your typical town.

After a protracted closed-door session that kept residents cooling their heels in the lobby, the council on Tuesday approved tax breaks for two developers, ratcheted up pressure on a stalled redevelopment, and heard a plea for support from the town’s embattled ambulance squad.

The council also increased maximum pay for future town administrators from $140,000 to $165,000–to attract more applicants when the job becomes vacant next month, according to town Attorney Vij Pawar.

Calvary Baptist Church was granted a two-year lease, at $1 per month, on a parking area at the corner of Coal and Martin Luther King avenues, pleasing congregation members who stuck it out in the packed meeting room.

And council members approved canoeing and kayaking on Speedwell Lake … while voicing some pool envy in the wake of improvements at Morris Township’s Ginty pool.


“Right now, I don’t know what our future is,” Karen Johansen, president of Morristown Emergency Medical Services, also known as the ambulance squad, told the council.

Karen Johansen, president of Morristown Emergency Medical Services--the volunteer ambulance squad--addresses members and the town council about her organization's precarious future. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Karen Johansen, president of Morristown Emergency Medical Services–the volunteer ambulance squad–addresses members and the town council about her organization’s precarious future. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

She made a pitch for more volunteers– by her count, the crew is down to about 20 members, from a high of 45 a few years ago. But she also prodded town officials for a declaration of support. This year the town slashed its annual grant to the squad in half, to $30,000.

And by the end of this month, the volunteers must vacate their headquarters at the former town public works site to make way for apartments in Phase II of the Speedwell Avenue redevelopment.

Johansen said she is eying a pair of new locations, but is unsure whether the squad should sign any long-term leases.

“We don’t know where we stand. Are we done? Finiti? We keep hearing rumors,” said Johansen.

“I think you should sign the lease,” said Mayor Tim Dougherty, asserting that a lack of volunteers is the only thing that could kill the 54-year-old organization.  It now charges patients for its services, and contracts with Atlantic Health for ambulance coverage three days a week.

Town officials will “continue to have conversations” with the squad about funding, Council President Rebecca Feldman told Johansen, “because you need to know.”


The council unanimously backed tax breaks to 55 Market Urban Renewal LLC, which is proposing a triangular law office between Market and Bank streets, and to Lofts at Morristown Urban Renewal LLC, which intends to build apartments at 10 Ford Ave.

Details were not released on Tuesday. Both agreements come back for a final vote on Sept. 8, 2015.

Generally speaking, Feldman said such deals allow builders to skip paying school taxes as an incentive to redevelop properties that otherwise might remain blighted. The new Modera 44 apartments and a nearly completed CVS pharmacy  got such breaks, as part of the Speedwell redevelopment.

The council also attempted to goose redevelopment of a former lumberyard at 57-62 Elm Street.  It was designated for redevelopment in 2006 but so far, no project has emerged. On Tuesday the council voted 5-1 to ask the planning board to revisit the matter.

POPCORN! PEANUTS! A vendor would have made a fortune at Tuesday's packed council meeting. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
POPCORN! PEANUTS! A vendor would have made a fortune at Tuesday’s packed council meeting. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

New questions include whether to expand the redevelopment zone, to include two vacant parcels on Hill Street held by the owner of the lumberyard site, Larry Berger. 

Residents expressed concerns about how this might affect the value of historic homes along Elm Street.

At the administration’s urging, the resolution emphasized that the planning board study won’t consider condemnation as an option. Not for now, anyway.  To do so would create an adversarial situation with the owner that might delay redevelopment even longer, Pawar said.

“This is a huge eyesore,” Councilwoman Alison Deeb said of the lumberyard site. “It’s a good thing, a positive thing, to have some movement on this.”

Feldman, the council president, argued that keeping open the condemnation option would give the town some leverage. But her amendment garnered no support.

Raline Smith-Reid cast the only vote against the administration’s proposal. Michelle Dupree Harris,  participating by telephone, abstained.


The Mayor led a round of applause for Administrator Michael Rogers, who leaves next month for a similar post in Summit.  A special day will be scheduled to honor him, Dougherty said.

By a unanimous vote, the council agreed to boost the salary range for Rogers’ successor.

“It’s too low,” the Mayor said of the $140,000 max.  Even the new ceiling, $165,000, is less than Rogers will earn in Summit, he said.

Rogers, who plans to continue residing in Morristown, may want to invest some of his raise in a good kayak.

Starting next month, residents can kayak and canoe on Speedwell Lake. “This will open up opportunities for fishing and access to the Whippany River,” said Councilman Stefan Armington.

As for swimming, Armington and Feldman questioned whether the town’s Burnham Park Pool is keeping pace with Morris Township’s  Ginty Pool, which introduced a fancy slide, jacuzzi-style seating and water heaters among $2 million of improvements this summer.

Armington said he pays higher nonresident fees for his kids to swim in Morris Township, where they feel there are fewer rules and no “adult-only” swim periods.  Feldman said an ordinance is necessary to enable open house events at Burnham Park, to attract new members.

“Other towns have open houses. People here won’t pay $45 a day to try it out,” the council president said.

Rogers countered that pool revenues are “steady or increasing,” suggesting that users enjoy the Burnham pool as-is and maybe don’t want water slides. The Mayor said he’s heard no complaints, and offered to conduct his own informal poolside survey.



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  1. No mention of the issues dealing with the arbitrary decisions of council president Feldman and other council members political decisions to impose restrictions for Iron Bars new restaurant. Although Iron Bar has not had any violations in the three years it’s been open its new venture has been targeted to close at 11 30. Other listed establishments with violations have not been restricted. This is politics at its worst. Not to mention a violation of federal anti trust law. In 35 years doing business in Morristown I’ve never seen this kind of political retribution.

  2. @Concerned About EMS

    When the fire department uses their ambulance, other fire units (sometimes all of the available engines/the only available ladder truck) need to be put out of service for the duration of the medical calls, as the same firefighters that were supposed to operate those fire units are needed to staff the ambulance. This obviously negatively effects fire protection in Morristown, but also negatively effects other towns, such as Morris Township, because they are requested to respond into Morristown when the Morristown FD ambulance is out. The Fire Department ambulance is not the best solution.

    Also, the money that the ambulance squad collects through billing is to help the ambulance squad better serve the town and it’s visitors. None of the money goes to the ambulance squad members as payment. They all volunteer for free.

  3. the lumberyard site has an owner who is in no hurry to do anything… like pay taxes or keep up his rat infested properties on Speedwell Avenue.
    Look it up!
    He’s a colorful one!

  4. Tax abatements have not proven beneficial in many cities. Morristown is one city that surely doesn’t need to offer them. I urge the council to reconsider

  5. The days of volunteering in EMS are over!
    It is a career, not a hobby.
    Nothing is free, you need a service, you pay for services rendered, especially healthcare.
    Do you send your personal physician a donation every year?
    When you pipe breaks, who do you call….. the volunteer plumber or the paid/licensed plumber?

  6. Not sure whether it would fit, but Morristown could also use another nice hotel. HQ and Best Western fill up and the next option is Rt 10 a couple towns away.

  7. The ambulance squad in Morristown is antiquated, and relies on Atlantic to pick up shifts. Fiscally, this makes no sense. Both Morristown Ambilance Sqaud and Atlantic are private organizations, where their income now goes to them, not the town. The Fire Dept. which has an ambulance bills, and those funds go directly to the town. So the question really is, why is the mayor so In favor of an organization that produces nothing, vs. an organization that can supply a guaranteed Ambulance 24/7, all while being profitable for the townv

  8. Why can’t the Town focus on sites that actually have easy access to the train station in more suitable areas like Blachley and Lackawana Place instead of pushing to increase development on a site that will cause traffic and roadway problems that could hamper the development of the other more appropriate sites.

  9. nyone familiar with this site and its history would understand it is an important part of a residential historic district . The property owners have invested years of effort at their own expense to restore and retain the historic character of their neighborhood while dealing with a greedy out of town property owner, who takes pride in neglecting his properties until they fall in such a state of disrepair that the Town will except any undisirable development, just to get anything done. It appears that Larry Berger is well on his way to make another profit at the towns expense. His methods work, so why should he change his way of doing business. Its the town government that has the responsibility for seeing that he is made to take the loss for his actions instead of rewarding him again.

  10. That is great news on allowing canoeing and kayaking on Speedwell Lake. Are permits needed? and are there going to be official launch sites or anywhere I can squeeze the boat on to the lake?

  11. The lumberyard site is a perfect site for a building like Highlands. Right next to the train station. Would attract so many new people to the town and get rid of the eye sore thats been there for far too long.