Rolling out a municipal budget with a modest tax decrease usually brings kudos for local officials.
But it was just a footnote to a wild and woolly marathon that stretched from Wednesday to Thursday in Morris Township, where dozens of angry residents hooted, hissed and vowed to vote out Township Committee members come Election Day.
“I’ve lived here 35 years. You have a responsibility to us as residents, and you’re breaking it!” railed Peter Broeman, a lawyer.
Residents were incensed that they only received a few days’ notice about the meeting, at which the Committee advanced zoning ordinances intended to meet a June 15 court deadline for adhering to an affordable housing settlement.
During a six-hour session, elected officials were accused of acting secretively on matters residents fear could harm property values and quality of life by bringing high-density development to their backyards.
People from the Liberty Greens townhouses off Punch Bowl Road and from Mt. Kemble Avenue each declared they felt like “second-class citizens.”
After a vigorous back-and-forth with the audience—which overflowed from the 140-seat municipal chamber into a hallway—the Committee agreed to continue deliberations on rezoning 27 acres near Liberty Greens at a special meeting, on May 24 at 6 pm.
Liberty Greens residents had demanded more time to digest Township affordable housing plans that are so complicated, officials had difficulty explaining them under repeated questioning.
The residents may hire a lawyer to help propose changes to the ordinance, to ensure future affordable housing, garbage dumpsters and athletic facilities are situated farther from their homes.
Townhouse owners deserve the same peace and quiet as people with single-family homes, said Broeman, voicing concerns that “we can have a basketball court for a lot of low-income people learning to get into the NBA” abutting back porches.
“I’m for affordable housing,” added Liberty Greens resident Marilyn Powell, “but not to look out my window into their window.”
To give Committee members a better feel for the area they are re-zoning, Environmental Commission Chairperson Sue Young offered to give them a walking tour of the wooded parcel, owned by the Sisters of Charity.
At this point it was around 11 pm. Most of the crowd went home, thinking the meeting was adjourned.
But the night was young.
’ARMAGEDDON VERY WELL COULD BE IN STORE’
The Committee plowed ahead until 1 am on Thursday, eventually voting 3-2 to approve another controversial plan.
This one allows a maximum of 115 apartments and townhouses, including 23 affordable rentals, at the site of the Mt. Kemble Rehabilitation Institution, on the border of Morristown near Fort Nonsense.
A handful of remaining residents pleaded for an adjournment, like the one granted to the Liberty Greens people.
“I get more notices about fireworks at Spring Brook [Country Club] than I ever got for this,” said Jayme Harvey, who lives near the Mt. Kemble site.
Resident Rick Bourland told the Committee: “I observed tonight that you do a lot of good work. But not everything is above-board.”
Morristown Mayor Tim Dougherty chimed in, too, suggesting the Committee delay its Mt. Kemble vote until it knows the full scope of the project.
Would Toll Brothers, the prospective developers, need to build more units on the Morristown side of the property to make the project economically viable?
Morristown officials think 115 units are reasonable for the entire site — but anything more is too dense, he said, echoing concerns he raised earlier this month.
Committee members said they didn’t know the answer.
“Then you shouldn’t be voting on this until you have all the information,” said Dougherty.
While sympathizing with residents’ “thought processes,” Mayor Peter Mancuso said he feared delays would jeopardize the Township’s December settlement with the Fair Share Housing Center.
“Armageddon very well could be in store for the Township” if that happens, resulting in far more affordable housing being imposed on the municipality, Mancuso said.
Struggling to stay cool under relentless public grilling, Township Planner Paul Phillips explained that the Fair Share Housing Center sought to mandate 1,100 units as the Township’s affordable housing “fair share.”
Citing a Byzantine series of formulas, calculations and credits, Phillips said the Township negotiated its obligation down to 184 affordable units through 2025.
Major changes at the 11th hour could “blow up” the agreement, putting the Township back on the hook for many more units, Phillips cautioned.
Mancuso and Township Attorney John Mills entertained the possibility of carrying the matter, but the effort foundered when planning consultant John Barree said he would be vacationing through Memorial Day.
Committee Democrats Cathy Wilson and John Arvanites supported an adjournment, but Mancuso and fellow Republicans Bruce Sisler and Matheu Nunn, participating by telephone, voted to adopt the Mt. Kemble redevelopment ordinance without elaboration.
“This has been rammed through in 12 days,” Wilson said. “I do hope we learn a lesson and change our ways…We need to look at the processes we use to communicate with the public.”
P.S. The Committee unanimously adopted a $35.5 million budget. It brings a $43 reduction in municipal taxes for someone with a home assessed at the Township average of $560,000, said Administrator Tim Quinn.