Maybe it was the full moon.
On Tuesday, a Morristown councilwoman stormed out of a town meeting. Then she marched upstairs and testified at a zoning board hearing–where a board member had just resigned on the spot.
Let’s start downstairs.
Councilwoman Alison Deeb arrived a few minutes late–smack in the middle of public comments by resident Richard Ray, lambasting Deeb for a “street fight” last month. Ray claimed the councilwoman grabbed his wrist and disrupted a town cleanup of an empty lot in his neighborhood.
“This is a personal attack,” Deeb protested.
Council President Toshiba Foster told Deeb she could respond after Ray finished.
“Okay, I’m leaving then, because in the past, for your friends and Democrats, you said personal attacks were not allowed!” shot back Deeb, the council’s lone Republican and a lame duck.
As she departed the chamber, Deeb continued protesting, off-microphone. Foster spoke over her: “I don’t know what you’re talking about in the past, and I’m so sorry that you can’t stand and accept what’s being heard. Thank you for attending. Have a good night.”
As a parting shot, Foster — who in 2017 seconded the council’s Stigma-Free resolution, endorsing a culture where people with mental health issues “feel supported by their community and neighbors” — added:
“Take your meds.”
BOARD MEMBER THREATENS SUIT, QUITS
Now let’s go upstairs.
The zoning board was in the middle of a special three-and-a-half hour hearing–which, by the way, was not posted on the town’s calendar– about Schuyler Lofts, a five-story, 28-unit apartment building proposed for Schuyler Place.
This project, pending since October 2018, seeks variances to exceed (by four feet) a 65-foot height limit, and to allow off-site parking (in four Morristown Parking Authority garages) and apartments (instead of retail) on the ground floor.
According to Morristown’s affordable housing formula, Claremont Companies also must set aside four of its apartments for low- and moderate income tenants. The developer wants to transfer half of that affordable housing obligation–two units–to Co-home Inc., a new group home for the developmentally disabled in Morristown’s Historic District.
Claremont would pay Co-home $250,000. Co-home would use the money to help underwrite two persons with disabilities who otherwise could not afford the group home’s fees. And the town could count those units towards its affordable housing totals to the state.
Not so fast.
Board member Jeff Stiles, who lives in the Historic District, shares many of his neighbors’ concerns about a 30-year deed restriction that would attach to this transfer.
If Co-home goes belly-up, they fear, the covenant could prevent the stately Victorian on Miller Road from being converted back to a private residence. Other kinds of group facilities could follow, with unpredictable results, they argue.
Stiles has been recused from prior hearings on this application to avoid conflicts of interest. At Tuesday’s meeting, he insisted on commenting as a resident.
Project attorney Peter Wolfson objected. Stiles’ board status could influence fellow members, he said. Stiles responded that he would quit the board, and threatened to sue his former mates if they attempted to silence him.
“If this is the way we’re going to treat it, then that’s what I’m going to have to do, okay?” Stiles said.
“I believe I have the right as a resident to ask questions and to provide comments. If the board doesn’t want me to, you can stop me. And I will guarantee we will be in court over this issue. And the applicant can just wait for that to be resolved. So, whatever the board wants to do.”
“So…are you resigned from the board?” Board Attorney David Brady asked Stiles.
“Yes, effective immediately, I resign from the board,” Stiles said.
Brady allowed Stiles to continue, and the now-ex-board member grilled project Planner Michael Tobia about the affordable units, and whether Co-home’s viability hinges on the affordable housing transaction, and about why the developer determined retail would not work on Schuyler Place.
(The side street never has supported retail, Tobia answered, adding it’s ringed by Morris County buildings, so no retail clusters can form.)
SO YOU WANT TO BE A LAWYER?
Deeb, whose Fourth Ward includes the Historic District, also stepped up to question the project’s experts.
This raised more interesting scenarios for the lawyers.
Wolfson voiced concerns about a Councilwoman weighing in a matter before another town board. Brady, the board’s lawyer, acknowledged this normally would be a problem, because the developer could appeal a zoning board denial to the council.
But voters denied Deeb a fourth term in last week’s election. As a lame duck, she will be gone in a few weeks, Brady said. Her questions were permitted. (If you’re keeping score at home, Deeb plans to seek appointment to the vacated seat of state Assemblyman Anthony M. Bucco.)
As the night grinded on, another unusual exchange involved Co-home’s attorney, Andrew Camelotto, and board Chairman James Bednarz.
Addressing the group home’s viability, Camelotto, representing the venture pro bono, contended the future is solid because state and federal funding sources are available. Some of those programs, he noted, could impose deed restrictions of their own.
“That’s something my client would absolutely explore if this [affordable housing transfer] is not approved as part of the application. That’s just something to be aware of,” Camelotto said.
The board chairman jumped in:
“What does that mean? It’s almost like a threat,” Bednarz said.
Camelotto backpedaled, and when he could not provide details on what such restrictions might entail, Bednarz admonished: “Let’s stay away from postulating on that.”
At the suggestion of town Planner Phil Abramson, Brady, the board attorney, said he would research whether state affordable housing regulations would allow a flexible deed restriction. One that might enable Co-home to revert to a private residence, and the town to transfer Co-home’s affordable units elsewhere, if the venture folds.
The hearing is scheduled to resume on Dec. 4, 2019.
In other business…
Back downstairs, the council re-introduced an ordinance to regulate Airbnb-style short-term rentals of homes. A final vote is set for Dec. 3. And the council adopted a measure allowing up to four bed-and-breakfasts in town.