Bucolic park or political battleground? Morristown mayoral candidates stake their turf

Proposed Speedwell Avenue park, next to Modera apartments, March 22, 2021. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
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A grassy parcel intended for peaceful recreation is shaping up as a battleground in this spring’s mayoral race.

In dueling statements this week, Mayor Tim Dougherty and Democratic primary challenger Esperanza Porras-Field are portraying the future Speedwell Avenue park in starkly different terms.

“Adding to our already spectacular parks system, the Open Space @ Speedwell will turn a sore, empty lot at one of our major intersections into a beautiful, welcoming community center for all Morristown residents to enjoy,” stated the mayor, ahead of a groundbreaking scheduled for this Friday, April 9, 2021.

It’s a “total mismanagement of taxpayer dollars,” according to Porras-Field, who is campaigning to deny Dougherty a fourth term.

Bounded by Speedwell, Prospect Street and Clinton Place, the fenced-off site spans less than an acre.

The park, to be named in the fall, has undergone several design revisions since it was proposed in 2015.  Last October, the town council authorized hiring contractor Ralph Checchio, who officials anticipate will complete the project in August.

The cost of just over $818,000 will be shared by the town and Mill Creek Residential, developer of the adjacent Modera 44 and Modera 55 apartment buildings, the mayor’s office says.

Porras-Field says Morristown already has approved seven contracts amounting to almost $1.3 million.

She says the administration has let Mill Creek off the hook for a $250,000 contribution towards the park, its actual construction, full maintenance for five years, and shared maintenance in perpetuity.

The contribution was pared to $100,000 last year, with Mill Creek required to re-seed and re-grade the park.

Last month, the council amended a 2016 agreement with the developer to hasten transfer of the property — along with state environmental permitting responsibilities–to the town. This will expedite completion of the park, at no extra cost to the town, Administrator Jillian Barrick said at the council meeting.

But town promises to speed things along over the last year have not produced a usable park, said Porras-Field. She contends the mayor should spell out maintenance costs–“aren’t taxpayers entitled to know?”–and Mill Creek should pay its share, in return for tax breaks granted by the town.

“How could Mayor Dougherty allow the termination of Mill Creek’s contractual obligations and cause the Town to now bear this additional expense?” Porras-Field said, referring to park maintenance.

Mill Creek was allowed to make payments in lieu of taxes for the Modera apartments. These “PILOTs” save developers money by eliminating school taxes. The buildings were part of broader town plans to redevelop this section of Speedwell Avenue.

The mayor defended park costs as reasonable, described amendments as hewing to the spirit of the original agreement, and accused the challenger of spreading “highly misleading and wholly inappropriate” information.

“From the beginning of this process, the Open Space at Speedwell was anticipated to cost $1 million.  Therefore, total costs of $1.2 million are reasonable.  Every stage of this project has been discussed publicly and expenses clearly spelled out to the governing body and the public,” Dougherty said in a statement released Thursday afternoon by Barrick’s office.

“It is highly misleading and wholly inappropriate to say that the developer’s obligations were terminated.  Mill Creek fulfilled their obligations to the Town and, unlike other portions of this redevelopment area, their redevelopment project has been completed successfully.

“The amended park agreement is consistent with the spirit and intent of the original redevelopers agreement and will result in a beautiful park for residents to enjoy this year.  We are excited to have the contractor officially begin construction this Monday,” Dougherty said.

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