Morristown Council First Ward: Candidates trade views on development, traffic, bar expansions

Councilman Robert Iannaccone (Ind.), left, and Oliver Starnes (Dem) are competing in the First Ward.
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In Morristown’s First Ward, which includes the downtown business district, Councilman Robert Iannaccone seeks a second term on Nov. 5, 2019. He has switched from a Republican to an Independent.

He faces a challenge from Democrat Oliver Starnes.

We put these questions to the candidates.  You also can see them tonight, Wednesday, Oct. 30, 2019, at a League of Women Voters candidates forum, 7 pm at the Alfred Vail School.


MorristownGreen.com: Please tell us about yourself?

Robert Iannaccone:

Career and Associations:

  • Town Council First Ward Council Person
  • Morristown Parking Authority Council Liaison
  • Attorney in private law practice, 12 years
  • Health Care Executive, 23 years; currently CEO of Saint Michael’s Medical Center
  • Served on numerous healthcare policy and regulatory committees for the State of New Jersey, New Jersey Department of Health and the New Jersey Hospital Association
  • Board Member of the Greater Newark Healthcare Coalition
  • Trustee and Former President, PG Chambers School
  • Former Board Member and Coach, Morristown Junior Colonial Lacrosse Club
  • Former Committee Chair, Boy Scouts of America Morristown Troop 34

Personal:

  • Morristown resident 39 years; first 13 years as a tenant at 6 Altamont Court
  • Property owner at 23 Georgian Road; Member Washington Headquarters Neighborhood Association, 26 years
  • Married to Karen (26 years); together raised two sons in Morristown:  Robert & William

Education:

  • Rutgers Graduate School of Business, MBA
  • Seton Hall Law School, JD

Oliver Starnes:

Grant writing for municipalities was an incredibly rewarding experience. Competitive grant proposals are products of thorough communication with key stakeholders observing deadline-driven project management schedules. When there’s a unified vision and favorable outcomes are realized, many thousands stand to benefit from a collaborated effort, which is the greatest form of community service.

As a lifetime Morris County resident holding a bachelor’s degree in Political Science and master’s degree in Public Policy, I continue working toward a career in the public sector, which allows me to evaluate and advocate for policies at the Statewide level.

I was born in the First Ward at Morristown Memorial Hospital 31 years ago. Now as an Old Millennial, I’ve been living here for five years. Currently, I serve on Morristown’s Environmental Commission. Previously, I served as an Intern for the Morris County Democratic Committee and President of Morris County Young Democrats, which helped extensively develop my community organizing skills. I do not have any kids, but am also proud to be a Morristown resident in the state where most adults are living with their parents.


MG:  Why are you the best person for this council seat?

Robert Iannaccone: I have enjoyed my last four years on the Council and I believe I have made a difference. I have proven myself to be a strong, fair, and independent voice for the residents of the First Ward.   I vote as my constituents guide me; I seek their input not only on issues that come before the Council and Redevelopment Commission but also on the concerns they raise.  The success of this ongoing dialogue has resulted in the residents of the First Ward becoming truly engaged in our Town’s governance.  It is this style of representation I wish to continue.

Oliver Starnes: Residents from the age of 25 to 34 make up roughly 25 percent of Morristown’s total population, but presently do not have adequate representation on Town Council.

Despite being raised 20 minutes to the west, I grew up revering Morristown for its apparent quality of life and the historic character which defines this town.

At 31 years of age, I’ve faced very formative and invaluable life experiences, which served to benefit personal character traits. Namely these include being a morally principled, affable listener, who’s equally capable of deploying both objectivity and empathy.


MG: If elected, what are your priorities for the ward?

Robert Iannaccone: There are several challenges facing Morristown.  The good news is we have a strong Administration and Council to address those challenges.  Development and traffic are the two obvious challenges.

The Town is in the process of completing a town-wide traffic study and the Council/Redevelopment Commission is committed that no further development will result in additional negative impacts on traffic.

The not-so-obvious challenge is our budget and possible future increase in our tax rate. The State is passing more expenses onto the Town, such as pension costs.  A large portion of the Town’s expenses is labor costs and labor costs will increase year after year.  This past year we saw a municipal tax increase for the first time in three years.

I have led the Town in developing a practice of projecting the budget out five years.  The current projection indicates that without changes to our cost structure or tax base, we will continue to see increases in our taxes.

We must consider shared services with neighboring municipalities and the County. We must weigh the financial benefits of additional development against possible negative impacts on our quality of life. We need to consider what sectors of our Town are causing additional costs and examine who should fairly bare those direct costs.

Some of the other initiatives I hope to accomplish in the next four years:

  • Complete and evaluate the Town sponsored traffic study to determine the effect of regional development on traffic.
  • Create opportunities for “creative entrepreneurs”, independent contractors, artists and other innovators in affordable, possibly shared, space, and look for additional opportunities to partner and promote small business and the arts (1st floor of M-Station?).
  • Request the Historical Preservation Commission to update its inventory of eligible historical properties and neighborhoods; consider ordinances to strengthen the Historical Preservation Commission’s ability to discourage the demolition or substantial alterations of locally designated historical resources, explore opportunities to connect the various historical sites throughout Town and promote tourism
  • Place a focus on People through support and development of the Morristown Mayor Wellness Initiative. Use this initiative as a vehicle to place the health and wellness of residents first and to enhance our community’s quality of life. Expand recreational opportunities for people of all ages.
  • Reintroduce design standards that improve the character of new development and promote building designs that are consistent with the Town’s historic character.
  • Advance open space and parks initiatives. I learned a valuable lesson in the past four years that the much-needed public spaces must be considered as part of every new major development. We must improve the greenery and open space that currently exists by supporting the efforts of the Shade Tree Commission and advocating for improved maintenance and facilities in our existing parks.
  • With Administration’s support and collaboration, identify locations for additional park and open spaces especially in First Ward West of 287, the most densely populated area of Town:
  • Continue the discussion we started on the availability of affordable retail for Morristown residents.
  • Insist on enforcement/follow up of our laws and Board and Council’s actions.

Oliver Starnes: If elected, my priorities for the second-largest Ward, encompassing about 28 percent or 550 acres of Morristown, will center around its extensive development relative to its disparity of protected open space. They include:

  • Reducing Traffic Congestion
  • Promoting Safe Corridors for Pedestrians and Cyclists.
  • Identifying Unique Designs or Methods to Improve Circulation and Address Parking Needs.
  • Protecting Open Space
  • Improving Our Parks and Recreational Facilities.
  • Deploying Innovative Strategies to Expand Protected Open Space
  • Smart (Re)Development
  • Promoting Responsible Growth for Both Residents and Businesses.
  • Preserving Morristown’s “Main Street” Feel and Quality of Life.

MG: For several years, the Council has attempted, unsuccessfully, to impose alcohol curfews—early shutdown of alcohol sales—as conditions of the Iron Bar’s liquor license expansion on South Street.

Bob, why do you support imposing this condition even though courts and the the state Division of Alcoholic Beverage Control keep overturning it?  What is at stake here?

Robert Iannaccone: The prior Council, acting as the Alcoholic Beverage Commission for the town, attempted to place conditions on club and bar hours. I did, however, support the appeal of that attempt to limit the size and impact of those establishments, especially in the late evening hours.

Restaurants, bars, clubs and residential homes share the downtown. These uses must coexist in a respectful and peaceful manner. Noise, misbehavior and crowd limits in the Downtown must be addressed. The previously placed conditions for curfews proceeded through the appellate process and ultimately were determined to be an unsuccessful attempt to define those limits.

I have been one of the leaders in developing other limitations that have improved the quality of life of the residents in downtown while at the same time not unduly burdening the operations of our businesses.

Through my efforts and those of Councilperson Armington, we have successfully implemented limits through alternative means. We are now tracking public summonses and disturbances and will have the necessary data if other court action becomes necessary in the future.

The Council has also changed the zoning requirements so that establishments must now define themselves as either bar, restaurant or club during the zoning process and meet the necessary conditions for the specific operation. This will avoid the concentration of high volume establishments in close proximity to each other.

We need to work more collaboratively with the liquor establishments in order to address issues as they arise. A good example is recent complaints about noise when bands are part of the entertainment at theses establishments and the front doors are open to the street.

MG: Ollie, what is your position on this?  How will you vote if/when these conditions come up again, and why?

Oliver Starnes: Morristown’s night life is essentially part of its modern character. The Morristown Police Department does an excellent job maintaining public order and keeping the peace, allowing others to enjoy their time here.

With the State Division of Alcohol Beverage Control continually overturning these conditions, it seems like Iron Bar deserves the benefit of doubt. So, I’d work toward accommodating a (12-month) trial period permitting expansion.

It’s a compromise allowing the business to expand its license and giving the Town an opportunity to fully assess the potentially negative impacts. Since this question appears to be somewhat hypothetical, it’s difficult to answer without access to more detailed background information.


MG: The First Ward has a significant number of apartments. Should Morristown bring back rent controls?  Why / why not?

Robert Iannaccone: Rent control never went away; Morristown still has rent control BUT it only applies to units built before 1981 and provides that when a unit is vacated, the base rent can be raised to the market rate for the new tenancy.

Some landlords would like to see as many units vacated as possible so that controlled rents can be raised. As the only Council member to address the need to update and evaluate our current laws regarding rent control and tenants rights, there is much left that needs to be done.

At my insistence, we have passed ordinances that have limited the fees and assessments landlords can charge and have strengthened anti-harassment regulations, particularly as they relate to tenants in rent-controlled apartments.

I promote and support initiatives and enforcement of building codes that improve the maintenance of our apartment complexes and have advocated for a clear, written statement of tenants’ rights to be mailed annually to tenants along with the with the town’s list of contacts for assistance.

The current Council has strengthened the leadership of the Housing Authority and expanded the number of units designated for low and moderate-income individuals and families. As a result, Morristown’s compliance with NJ’s Fair Housing Act is greater than any other Morris County municipality.

In August of 2018, Morristown adopted its Housing Element and Fair Share Plan. This report clearly shows that Morristown is becoming less affordable for the working middle class.

Rent control as it is currently structured is not maintaining affordability. The sale of apartment complexes and the demand for institutional returns have resulted in a strong incentive to see units turn over so that rents can be raised to the market rate, resulting in the loss of rent controlled units.

The affected individuals and families are not just those defined as low and moderate income by NJ Law but also working families, often two income households, with incomes greater than the defined limits. We need to discuss what our future affordable housing policy will be, especially as it relates to working middle class families.

The discussion must go beyond Morristown – it is a State issue. That discussion must include more than just whether rent control should be strengthened and expanded. We need to consider the following:

We now have actual data on how our adopted Master Plan and new Land Use Ordinance is impacting development. Many believe that the increased inventory of apartments will decrease rents and therefore create affordability… but is this a valid assumption?

Are we willing to increase the density of development in order to expand the number of units? Does the current zoning overly encourage redevelopment and the potential loss of a diverse housing stock?

If the vacancy decontrol provision in the current regulation is removed, are there sufficient provisions that allow a landlord, over time, to recoup the associated capital investment necessary to ensure the proper maintenance of rent-controlled units?

Should our rent control ordinance define the qualifying incomes of individuals and families for those units, and perhaps allow a landlord to raise the rent for those no longer qualifying but require a comparable unit to then be placed into rent control?

Can units built post 1981 even legally be subject to rent control retrospectively?

We are seeing surrounding municipalities scrambling to develop plans to meet their low and moderate-income obligations. Would it be wrong for Morristown to take the position that it has done its share and it is now up to the rest of the County to catch up with their court dictated obligations?

Should Morristown’s remaining focus on affordability be on creating housing for those who would benefit most from proximity to our downtown and transportation network; i.e.: seniors and people with special needs?

So, on the issue of rent control, let’s have the discussion, balance the options, and refine our policy that will guide our future actions. Morristown is a caring community and we will make the right decisions.

Oliver Starnes: As a tenant, I strongly favor this measure along with others supporting a tenant’s right to remain in place without being coerced into moving out of the Town.


MG:  Bob, you have switched from a Republican to an Independent. Why?

Robert Iannaccone: I strongly believe that political parties are not necessary in local government. Four years ago, I was asked to run by a group of concerned citizens who wanted to continue the independent voice of my predecessor. I believe I have proven myself to be an independent, committed, and knowledgeable voice for the First Ward.

I have remained independent not only from a political party but also of any outside influences that might prejudice the decision process. In State and Federal elections, I have never voted for a party but rather for the person, their capabilities, and their position on the issues.

I see no need to declare myself aligned with the political platforms of either party, especially given the fact that I have no intention of using my representation here in Morristown to seek another political or governmental opportunity. It doesn’t matter on the local level which party you belong to – it is irrelevant. What is relevant are the issues that affect all of our residents regardless of party affiliation.


MG:  How much more development can Morristown accommodate?  How will the apartments and offices being built across Morristown affect the quality of life here?

Robert Iannaccone: As to the question of how much more development can Morristown accommodate, I honestly don’t know the answer. We need to proceed cautiously and in a manner that protects existing property rights, respects our neighborhoods, and advances our vision for Morristown.

When the Council authorized the town-wide traffic study, I conditioned my affirmative vote on the assurance that the study would not only make recommendations as to what improvements could be made to reduce congestion and improve traffic flow and safety but also would define what reasonable development could be accommodated by the existing and possibly improved road system.

We should not build out in a manner that cannot be supported by Morristown’s infrastructure. At the time the traffic study was authorized, I conditioned my vote on the representation that the data and resulting study would be a “live tool” that would be able to be used to assess future development proposals and measure the cumulative impact of multiple projects.

Such a study would hopefully eliminate the practice of relying on the developers’ traffic experts and be expanded in the future to consider the impacts of development outside of the Town itself; i.e. the current development along Hanover Avenue and Columbia Turnpike in Morris Township.

Oliver Starnes: At this point, Morristown’s First Ward can only accommodate commercial or residential redevelopment. Only about 2.5 acres of Morristown’s First Ward, Jacob Ford Park, is considered as protected open space. This amounts to less than five percent of the First Ward’s total acreage with impervious land cover largely constituting the remainder.

The First Ward is Morristown’s second-largest total area compared to Ward 2 (20 percent), Ward 3 (17 percent), and Ward 4 (35 percent). Yet it’s completely devoid of access to rivers, lakes, or ponds.

The fate of future development in Morristown lies at an intersection between public and private interests. Although each group is considerably influential, the Mayor and Council serve to liaise between both parties, while protecting the public’s overall interest. In any event, a harmonious relationship is vital to balancing the rate of future residential and commercial development according to the appropriate land uses outlined in Morristown’s Master Plan.


MG: What impact will the M Station project have?

Robert Iannaccone: Some of you were not happy with the Spring Street Redevelopment Plan (M-Station). Instead of being the sole “no” vote, I decided to use my vote to obtain concessions and accommodations for setbacks, design, traffic and public space. The main concession received was that the plan cannot move forward without the required complete traffic evaluation and release of the study already in process by the Town, rather than simply relying on the Town’s new traffic consultant or the developer’s experts.

Your ideas were crucial to the process, many of which were incorporated into the development. This project will now go to the Planning Board for site plan approval. We will have additional opportunities to voice our views and opinions.

The 2019 Amendment to the Spring Street Redevelopment Plan that the Redevelopment Commission just adopted represented a substantial improvement over what was allowed by the original plan. The positive impacts were articulated at the public forums, during the course of the hearings, and in the adopted plan. Traffic and congestion remained the primary concerns.

A condition of M-Station moving forward is that traffic within the Morris Ave and Spring Street corridors between South Park Place/Speedwell and the Morris/Ridgedale intersection will not be further negatively impacted by this project, taking into consideration the impacts of the other projects currently anticipated to be developed along that corridor.

Oliver Starnes: Morristown residents should be mindful of both short- and long-term impacts expected from the M Station project. While the project site technically sits in Ward 2, it’s also about 500 feet from my apartment.

In the short-term, I’m anticipating heavy degradations to personal quality of life. Further, it’s not quite clear exactly how long the short-term will last. A transformational project of this magnitude has not been undertaken in Morristown since before I was born.

The Headquarters Plaza, completed in 1985, was a project that took nearly 20 years to complete. From an environmental standpoint, the project site contains a steep sloping area which happens to be a treasured natural resource. With 2018 as the wettest year on record in New Jersey and recently unseasonable weather patterns these conditions may only further extend the M Station project completion timeline.

In the long-term, I believe this project will serve to mutually benefit Morristown residents, small businesses, and large corporations. I’m very optimistic to explore the potential community benefits that may come as a result of this project. Realistically, this occurs mainly through large volumes of community input and regular in-person council meeting attendance.


MG: Realistically, what can be done to improve traffic in town?

Robert Iannaccone: In addition to the traffic study, traffic database, and modeling tool mentioned above there are numerous initiatives we can explore to help improve traffic in Morristown:

  • The Morristown Parking Authority and Morristown Partnership have begun a discussion about possibly consolidating many of the small private transport services (hotels, hospital, County and business buses) in town into a free shuttle service traveling a standard route to move people between parking garages, hotels and business to other parts of town.
  • The town has developed a good relationship with New Jersey Transit. Continue to advocate for more reliable train service to encourage people to take the train rather than drive to Morristown.
  • Continue to encourage local residents to walk or bike through safer and more pleasant sidewalks and bike lanes. Examples are the projects already approved along Morris Ave., which include in their design wider than usual sidewalks.
  • The Town is “rethinking” some traffic circulation patterns. For example, should Park Place South and North be two-way roads? Think about it; would it help?
  • Continue to implement Morristown’s Complete Streets Policy and Priority Action Plan, as well as utilize the Complete Streets Checklist to ensure that new and reconstructed roadways incorporate the needs of all users
  • Formalize and reinforce connections to Patriots’ Path, the Traction Line Recreation Trail, and other pedestrian/bike trails linking Morristown to destinations within the region.
  • Preserve residential streets as slow zones and enforce speeding and other traffic regulations.
  • Employ traffic calming techniques where necessary (such as those deployed on Washington Avenue and Lake Road) to reduce cut-through traffic, reduce speeding, and facilitate safe pedestrian, bike, and vehicular circulation on neighborhood streets
  • Evaluate all pedestrian crossing areas and ensure that safe and accessible designs are in place, and propose improvements where necessary (particularly on Madison Ave. by the hospital, Madison Ave. in front of Blair/Hamilton Apartments, Morris Ave. west of 287, and Morris Ave.in the vicinity of the train station).
  • Actively engage regional, state, and federal agencies, local governments, and transit providers to ensure that regional projects and programs affecting the town are consistent with town plans, policies, and priorities
  • Educate residents, visitors, and workers about the transit services available to and within Morristown and support employee incentive programs for using mass transit, carpooling, and/or cycling to work.

Thank you for this opportunity to share some of my thoughts with your readers.

Bob Iannaccone
r-iannaccone@townofmorristown.org

Oliver Starnes: While I’m not an expert, I do believe more can be done to explore innovative strategies that calm or decongest traffic. If elected on Nov. 5th, I will be taking the initiative of developing new relationships with regional transportation authorities and consult with other municipal engineers or traffic experts from across the state to expand our base of knowledge on this matter.

Thank you for providing this opportunity.

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