Commentary: Postscript to a Morristown zoning board meeting (a tribute and rant)

A dentist's plans for this structure has riled Morristown's Franklin Corners neighborhood. Photo by Linda Stamato
A dentist's plans for this structure has riled Morristown's Franklin Corners neighborhood. Photo by Linda Stamato

Editor’s note: The opinions here are the author’s, and do not necessarily reflect those of this publication.

By Linda Stamato

Public members of Morristown’s Board of Adjustment serve the public good, for no compensation, and, often with little thanks or appreciation for their efforts.  Perhaps service is its own reward. I wonder.

Morristown's Franklin Corners neighborhood. Photo by Linda Stamato
Morristown’s Franklin Corners neighborhood. Photo by Linda Stamato

I was thinking along these lines on the evening of Jan. 10, 2018, as I observed these board members, my fellow residents of Morristown, seriously attending to a matter before them—an application regarding a business property in a residential zone—and staying focused (and awake!) during more than three hours of presentations, questions and testimony.  

They listened, with patience and forbearance, and they demonstrated their interest, knowledge and experience and, occasionally, their good humor.  

They are competent, dedicated men and women and we owe them a debt. Especially given the hand they are dealt and the procedures they have to follow.   

I was attending because I—and several neighbors—had more than a passing interest in the application before the board that night concerning our neighborhood, Franklin Corners.

This home, which won an award for its restoration, reflects the pride of residents in Morristown's Franklin Corners neighborhood. Photo by Linda Stamato
This home, which won an award for its restoration, reflects the pride of residents in Morristown’s Franklin Corners neighborhood. Photo by Linda Stamato

A prominent corner property, at 2 Franklin Place, had been purchased by Franklin Place LLC, for Ewa Awad, a dentist currently in practice at 26 Madison Ave. 

She and her husband, Michael, managing member of this partnership, want exceptions to be made for their property that conflict with zoning requirements in R3 residential zones and historic districts.

Neighbors came to present our views regarding the proposal. We didn’t oppose the dental practice; we opposed the changes relating to the building, the huge advertising sign (with lights), and the absence of attention to the grounds (that are required by a previous judicial ruling to preserve the residential character of the property).

The meeting didn’t start off especially well as the contentious counsel for the applicant dismissed us as “people who are always opposed to change” even though no one had yet spoken. Evidently, by showing up, we challenged him.

The folks he dismissed included, among others, Marion HarrisMargret Brady and Kenneth Hoffman

Harris is the careful, well-spoken and respected vice chair of the Historic Preservation Commission, which has a role in the review of the application.

Brady is a former elected official, chairperson of the Planning Board’s Long Range Planning Committee, a longtime commissioner of the Parking Authority, and trustee of the historic Willow Hall. She’s also an acknowledged, if not credentialed, planner, particularly when it comes to historic buildings and residential neighborhoods.

A nationally-known photographer, Hoffman is faculty member at Seton Hall University and the owner, with his wife, of a home that received the Morristown Historic Preservation award for their lovely and accurate restoration of it.

Adversarial approaches to planning and zoning decisions are often counterproductive. Adversarial attitudes hardly help.

Predictably, neighbors reacted to the antagonistic manner of the applicant’s lawyer. 

“It’s a billboard, not a sign,” one asserted. Others chimed in.

ATTENTION TO DETAIL: A home in Morristown's Franklin Corners neighborhood. Photo by Linda Stamato
ATTENTION TO DETAIL: A home in Morristown’s Franklin Corners neighborhood. Photo by Linda Stamato

Do dentists depend on walk-in trade? … A non-conforming use is not a baseline for additional exemption…You’re denuding a lawn so that your sign can be seen?…Yo, I can’t remember driving down a street, spotting a dentist’s sign, and saying to myself, ‘Oh, yes, I need to get my teeth cleaned so I’ll go in.’

Comment after comment reflected disdain for the applicant’s preparation, including doubts about the competence of his counsel and planner, neither of whom referred to nor, evidently, had knowledge of, the most recent ordinances relating to historic districts.  

As a result, the applicant only stiffened his position and projected an attitude of  “I can do what I want for my business,” indicating no awareness of its place in the very visible middle of a historic, residential zone.

According to Mr. Awad, “It’s a business,” after all, and “I need a presence, and so why shouldn’t I have a 20-square foot sign…and keep the lights on until 8:30 at night?” 

I’ll spare those who have read this far any more details. But think about what might have occurred if, instead, the Awads had engaged with neighbors and town professionals, perhaps asking Marion Harris for advice and suggestions regarding a sign that would fit more aesthetically into an historic district and not insult its residential character.

Suppose they had talked informally with neighbors to see what landscaping plans might be desirable to minimize the stark contrast of the building and its denuded grounds with the rich landscape and architecture of the area, and had reached out to the neighborhood to generate a conversation that might build relationships?

But, nope, nothing, only the required announcement of the board meeting by a lawyer’s letter, indicating that we could show up if we had anything to say.

That’s the legal requirement. Yet it doesn’t have to start there, and it doesn’t have to end with the bitter exchanges at the meeting, either.

If we want to avoid contentious questioning, antagonistic challenges, disparaging remarks and red faces, we might try talking before we appear before this good body of citizens.  We might be able to find reasonable accommodation instead of pushing for strict enforcement of requirements.  We need a better process than what the board has to follow.  

Landscaping behind Morristown town hall screens parking lot for Franklin Corners neighbors. Photo by Linda Stamato
SENSE OF PLACE: Landscaping behind Morristown town hall screens parking lot from view of Franklin Corners neighbors. Photo by Linda Stamato

Absent that, individuals can do things differently, if, indeed, they prefer something other than a win/lose result. Talking to those who are affected by what we do rarely makes things worse.

And think about it. When people have to live with one another, it helps to have reasonably good relationships. Winners and losers may not relate well in a neighborhood.

We still may have an opportunity, as the Board of Adjustment gave the applicant approval with conditions attached, relating to the sign and to the landscaping. Lawyers for both sides have been asked to meet and work things out. There is no reason they can’t consult with the neighbors.

These may seem like small things: A sign, a denuded landscape, a stark and starved façade. But remember, this is a neighborhood trying desperately to hold onto its residential and historic character.  

We don’t oppose change as much as we embrace the quality of our lives in this community. How it looks matters a good deal to all of us.  We want people to be invested in this neighborhood.

We regret that Franklin Place LLC’s owner does not appear to share our values. Business owners can be good neighbors if they want to be.  And neighbors may be good to have after all, even if you’re only running a business.

Linda Stamato lives in Morristown’s  Franklin Corners neighborhood,  and is a faculty member at the Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers.

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  1. Bravo, Linda for writing this. As more and more Franklin Corners properties were returned to residential use, and their owners invested their time and money in maintaining the historic residential character of our neighborhood, it was a shock to see the legally required landscaping and facade of the nonconforming use removed without notice or warning. The prior office had existed for many years with the support of its neighbors and we were looking forward to welcoming the new owner, until they ignored the law and their neighbors to proceed with actions that insulted not just their neighbors but the entire Town.. Its not as though there are not business zones nearby. Elm Street is in a zone permitting business use and only one short block away.

    It is not the right of any developer to decide the future of any Morristown neighborhood based on his or her own financial interests. NJ land use law is clear. Those uses are not legal or permitted. NJ case law is clear on this issue.