There were pros and cons of an ordinance to restrict Airbnb-type rentals, and statistics on police efforts to tame jaywalking and bicycling on sidewalks.
But the real fireworks at Tuesday’s Morristown council meeting involved charges that lame-duck Councilwoman Hiliari Davis doesn’t live here anymore.
“The Second Ward is currently without council representation and has been without representation since June 25,” as the council considers approvals for the giant M Station office redevelopment that could “adversely affect our residents,” charged resident Kelly Montes.
Montes, from a rival political camp that defeated Davis in the June Democratic primary, claimed Davis’ apartment has been vacant since July and she now resides in Florida.
“I’m sorry to disappoint you … But I do in fact live here,” Davis responded, joking “we’ve all heard the rumors, the mayor is flying me on his private jet.”
She acknowledged traveling during the summer–participating in council meetings via telephone–and added she got married last month, “which kept me away for awhile.”
But Davis said she has remained involved with residents–citing discussions with Montes over public housing parking issues–and she resents implications to the contrary.
“So I’ve been, you know, 100 percent in touch with my constituency. Whether I’m here or I’m not, I’m always available,” said the one-term councilwoman, adding she plans to “peacefully carry out” her term until Tawanna Cotten succeeds her.
“On Dec. 31st,” Davis pointedly told Montes, “your girlfriend will replace me, and then you can harass her.”
Attempts to reach Davis after the meeting to ascertain her address were unsuccessful. Town Clerk Margot Kaye said Davis remains a town resident, but she could not immediately provide further details.
Councilwoman Alison Deeb said she was awaiting clarification from town officials about what constitutes residency for elected officials, and whether taking part in meetings via telephone–Councilman Michael Elms phoned in on Tuesday– entitles them to their $10,017 annual stipend.
Deeb cited residency or attendance issues involving three former council members during her three terms.
According to New Jersey Title 40A:16-3, the seat of an elected municipal official may be deemed vacant if that person “fails to attend and participate in any meetings of the governing body for a period of eight consecutive weeks without being excused from attendance by a majority of the members of the governing body.”
Mayor Tim Dougherty came to Davis’ defense. “She has produced for the Second Ward, and she’s produced well, and I’m very proud to be her colleague,” he said.
And Council President Toshiba Foster asserted that Montes and her mother, Independent Third Ward council candidate Lorena Inestroza, have had numerous opportunities to share their concerns with her.
“I just want to put that on record that I am an at-large councilwoman and I am here to represent everyone,” Foster said, cutting off the pair when they tried to interrupt after the public comment period ended.
“So whether you all want to address me or not, I am here and available and willing to address your concerns. And you can take that as a message going forward.”
Inestroza touched a nerve with the mayor when she told the council that a resident of the Early Street seniors housing complex overdosed on Friday.
(Morristown Housing Authority Chairwoman Maureen Denman said on Wednesday that authorities have ruled out foul play in the death of the 70-year-old man; she declined to elaborate.)
“I don’t often share this. But I celebrated 31 years of recovery,” said Dougherty, emphasizing that substance abuse and the opioid crisis harm people from all walks of life, in every town.
“I’ve buried enough people. And I’ve seen it affect people that I know, and I love, and it’s real. And we have to be vigilant about it… and get to people that are young before it affects them,” the mayor said.
“If you see someone in need, call somebody, get somebody some help.”
TO AIRBNB, OR NOT TO AIRBNB…
By a 7-0 vote, the council introduced an ordinance to restrict Airbnb-type home rentals. The measure pertains to rentals of 30 days or less.
Single-family homes may not rented in this way, and only one unit of two-, three- and four-family homes can be rented out–if the home is owner-occupied. Inspections, annual licensing fees and parking requirements apply.
Nico Zavaleta of Crestwood Road said he’s rented his home via Airbnb for four years, to more than 100 guests.
They have included tourists, conventioneers, summer business interns, pharma employees transferred here, nursing students, family members of patients at Morristown Medical Center, and even a same-sex couple who traveled from China for in-vitro fertilization that was banned back home, he said.
The experience for tourists is more “warm and fuzzy” than bland hotels, Zavaleta said. It’s “a great way for families to test out an area before they move in,” and an income-generator that helps homeowners pay the mortgage, especially during lean times, he said, adding he bought his home with proceeds from lawn-mowing and snow-shoveling money he invested during his youth.
Rich Landreman of Woodlawn Drive said Airbnb rental income has helped him keep his home after he got laid off from his banking job.
But Kevin O’Brien, a neighbor of Zavaleta’s, said the Airbnb operation has turned their quiet dead-end street into a commercial zone, with parking problems and late-night slamming of car doors that awakens babies and dogs.
One family with young children moved, O’Brien said, because they were uncomfortable with the situation. He worries about his own mom, who lives alone in the neighborhood.
“I don’t like the fact that I don’t know who’s coming in the middle of the night, or who’s hanging out in the backyard,” O’Brien said.
“It’s all about profit. It’s not about being a good guy, not about hosting good people or grooming the tourism industry in Morristown. It’s for profit. That’s all this is.”
Councilman Stefan Armington said homeowners who want to do Airbnb can apply to the zoning board for a use variance.
“As it is now that there are no controls,” said Armington. “The zoning variance process provides opportunities for public input, and making sure that you have appropriate parking and other elements that will minimize the nuisances to the surrounding neighborhood.”
The ordinance is scheduled for adoption on Nov. 12, 2019, after a planning board review.
PEDESTRIAN SAFETY, BY THE NUMBERS
Armed with a $20,000 grant from TransOptions, a transit advocacy organization, Morristown police launched a public education campaign from May to September, designed to make crosswalks and sidewalks safer.
The numbers, according to Morristown Public Safety Director Michael Corcoran Jr:
Police stopped 449 pedestrians and 313 drivers, issuing 625 warning cards and 141 summonses.
Most of the grant–about $18,000–went toward 308 hours of officer enforcement. Many of the officers were in plain clothes.
The rest of the money bought marketing materials, to inform the public about safe navigation of crosswalks and bicycle rules.
(Anyone over 12 cannot bicycle on sidewalks in the Central Business District; slow, safe speeds are mandatory for any sidewalk cycling.)
“This is always going to be a work in progress,” said Corcoran, noting that a TransOptions survey indicates people are starting to get the message. He plans to apply for continuing grants.
IN OTHER BUSINESS
The council rejected the lone bid to “hydro-rake” vegetation from Foote’s Pond. The governing body had authorized $300,000; the sole bid came in at close to $500,000, said town Administrator Jillian Barrick.
The job will be re-bid.
Mayor Dougherty also urged the council to tweak Morris Township officials to complete their sidewalk on James Street.
Partly at the urging of Township residents eager to walk into Morristown, the town extended its sidewalk to the Township line, the mayor said. Now it’s time for the Township to reciprocate, he said.