Morristown council sends back ‘Airbnb’ ordinance, hears JCP&L say it can’t pinpoint cause of August outages

Carol Bianchi of JCP&L addresses the Morristown council about Aug. 5 power outages, Sept. 10, 2019. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
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Jersey Central Power & Light has been unable to pinpoint the cause of Aug. 5 power outages that affected thousands of customers in Morristown and Morris Township, a spokeswoman told the Morristown council this week.

At a busy meeting, the governing body also tentatively agreed to:

  • Spend $300,000 to “hydrorake” Foote’s Pond
  • Prohibit plantings of invasive species.
  • Extend deadlines for owners of Headquarters Plaza to make promised improvements to Pioneer Park
  • Impose a 3 percent hotel tax on short-term rentals.

However, council members tabled a so-called “Airbnb” ordinance to regulate online rentals of homes, sharing concerns voiced by residents that the measure inadvertently would encourage homeowners to commercialize single-family neighborhoods.

Town Attorney Vij Pawar said he felt it was important to get some kind of regulations on the books to address such rentals.

But residents Nolan Bas and Patrick Housel from the Shady Lane neighborhood, where there have been ongoing complaints about transients renting a house from an absentee landlord, expressed fears the situation would be exacerbated.

Councilman Robert Iannaccone, right, raises a question, as Councilman Stefan Armington listens, Sept. 10, 2019. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

Councilman Robert Iannaccone offered to work with Pawar to fine-tune the ordinance.

Councilwoman Alison Deeb said she wants it introduced simultaneously with an ordinance to regulate Bed and Breakfasts, presently prohibited in town.

A council subcommittee has been wrestling with that issue. Years ago, residents vigorously opposed B&Bs. Now, some want them, to save stately old homes from demolition, Deeb said.

‘ALARM BELLS’

Regarding the power outages, a JCP&L representative acknowledged “alarm bells really went up” over a manhole cover, which fire officials say landed 12 feet away from a manhole at an intersection near the Morristown train station.

At the time, Morristown officials expressed frustration with the utility, asserting it was slow to update them.

“I know that it was particularly concerning to you because of the safety pieces, there’s the reliability, and it is not fun when your residents are out of power. And we all know what that looks like,” Carol Bianchi, regional external affairs consultant for JCP&L, told the council.

But she said things were “a little bit trickier” than usual that day because JCP&L was racing to diagnose and repair two “cable faults,” or line failures.

These faults occurred on “substation circuits” at the intersection of Lafayette and Morris streets, near the train station, and on Speedwell Avenue, by the CVS pharmacy, said Bianchi, who also is the mayor of Bernards Township.

Echoing earlier statements from the utility, she said these circuits are not part of Morristown’s underground electrical network, which was plagued by manhole fires and explosions a few years ago.

JCP&L determined no faulty splices or other workmanship errors were to blame for the Aug. 5 outages.

Carol Bianchi of JCP&L, right, fields a question from Councilwoman Alison Deeb, Sept. 10, 2019. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

“Apart from that, there’s no official determination of what caused those faults, other than degradation of installation–which we don’t know exactly what caused that,” Bianchi said.

Jersey Central plans to install some vented manhole covers, designed to release pressure to avert blowing into the air.

Circuit-breakers also will be reconfigured to activate more quickly if faults occur in the underground portion of the network, continued Bianchi, who then described a maintenance program that includes periodic infrared-imaging of cables and pruning of trees around power lines.

SQUIRREL GUARDS? Jersey Central Engineer Ed Jinks addresses Morristown council about critters causing power outages, Sept. 10, 2019. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

Deeb inquired whether animals could have caused the outages. While that’s not apparent in this case, approximately 10 percent of power failures are the result of critters, responded Ed Jinks, a JCP&L engineer.

“Squirrels, birds, basically any creature that could possibly get onto the pole, chipmunks …if it crawls on the ground, we’ve seen it cause an outage,” said Jinks, noting “squirrel guards” and numerous other defenses have been tried with varying success over the years.

About half of outages involve trees hitting power lines, another 20- to 30 percent stem from equipment failures, and motor vehicle crashes with electrical gear account for a small percentage, Jinks said.

IN OTHER BUSINESS…

The council on Tuesday agreed to authorize negotiations to extend a deadline for completion of Pioneer Park.

Re-designing the barren, windswept park is part of a 2014 deal in which the town sold its land rights beneath Headquarters Plaza to its owners for $1.6 million. The owners agreed to spend up to $1.15 million on the beautification effort, which they were supposed to complete by this year.

At workshops, residents suggested beer gardens and skating rinks for the park. A landscape architect proposed greenery and a portable band shell in 2016. Mayor Tim Dougherty has said he wants to expand his annual Morristown Jazz & Blues Festival to showcase local performers at the park, across the street from the historic Morristown Green.

Town Attorney Vij Pawar, left, describes rental ordinance to council, as town Administrator Jillian Barrick and Mayor Tim Dougherty listen, Sept. 10, 2019, Photo by Kevin Coughlin

Now, the earliest completion date appears to be late 2020, according to Vij Pawar, the town attorney.

The owners — listed as Sixth ROC-Jersey Associates L.L.C. and First ROC-Jersey Associates L.L.C. — don’t want to start construction now and risk bad winter weather, Pawar said, because the park sits atop a membrane covering the Headquarters Plaza parking garage.

On Tuesday the council also unanimously introduced a measure imposing a 3 percent “Hotel and Motel Room Occupancy Tax” on hotels and on residences that rent rooms, including online via services such as AirBNB. Violations can bring fines $100 to $1250.

Another ordinance was introduced banning the planting of “competitive, persistent and pernicious” invasive plants, which can damage trees, vegetation and structures. “Examples include bamboo (spreading or running type), burning bush. Japanese barberry, kudzu-vine and multi flora rose.”

If they already exist on a property and spread to neighbors’ yards, the homeowner can be required to pay for removal. Violations can bring municipal court fines that escalate daily. If the town must perform removal, it can place a lien on the offender’s home to recoup expenses.

The council also gave initial approval for a $300,000 appropriation for “hydroraking” Foote’s Pond.

Town Administrator Jillian Barrick said this process involves scooping vegetation from the bottom of the waterway. Foote’s Pond has been filling with silt and weeds. Hydroraking should provide short-term relief, and it’s cheaper than dredging silt from the pond, Barrick said.

The town plans to raise $285,000 through bonding. Councilwoman Alison Deeb, who has been pushing to save the pond, thanked the administration for moving forward.

Earlier this year, 11 wooded acres adjacent to the pond were acquired from the Loyola House of Retreats, doubling the size of the park for hiking and passive recreation.

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