We continue to see ongoing improvements in COVID trends as the Omicron surge continues to decline. Today, the state’s seven-day average for new confirmed positive tests is now down 49% from a week ago and 91% from a month ago. In consultation with the Health Department, we currently plan to return to in-person Town Council meetings beginning February 22. All other Boards and Commissions plan to return to in-person meetings after that date as well.
As you likely heard, Governor Murphy announced at his weekly COVID briefing yesterday that the state mandate for masks in schools will be lifted on March 7 – another very substantial step in our return to normalcy.
CRIMINAL JUSTICE POLICY REFORM
I’d like to provide some follow up information to the comments I made in my weekly update last Friday after the extraordinary work of our Police Department to arrest five individuals fleeing from attempts to steal cars in broad daylight. I remain grateful for the incredible professionalism of our Police Department that they demonstrate day in and day out, and this Council’s ongoing support of the Westfield Police Department through ensuring they have the resources they need to keep our community safe, which includes ongoing technology upgrades and hiring new officers, with the department now at their highest staffing levels in decades.
I remain concerned, however, about the unintended consequences of the state bail reform law that was passed under Governor Christie with bi-partisan support, which was intended to ensure that those committing unserious crimes were not detained in jail simply because they were too poor to post bail, while their wealthier counterparts walked out the door because they could. That was an injustice that needed to be addressed.
However, in righting that wrong, the pendulum has swung too far. Criminals are now recommitting serious crimes without consequence. They do not fear the law or law enforcement, impeding and endangering our police officers as well our residents, a trend that is happening in urban and suburban communities all over the state.
Here in Westfield, what may have started with petty criminals taking advantage of complacent residents who didn’t lock their car doors overnight, has evolved into brazen acts of auto theft in broad daylight by criminals with long rap sheets, such as last week’s incident where serial criminals rammed their stolen car into a police vehicle, injuring the officers before fleeing on foot. It’s only a matter of time before someone is seriously injured.
Because this is an issue with consequences far beyond Westfield, I have been in touch with other suburban mayors and with Senator Jon Bramnick about “reforming the reform” without curtailing the progress that bail reform has enabled in addressing inequity in our criminal justice system.
Since crime has no borders, Summit Mayor Nora Radest and I attended a press conference in Paterson this morning, hosted by Paterson Mayor Andre Sayegh and mayors from the Urban Mayors Association from Newark, Trenton, East Orange, Elizabeth, Plainfield and others to support their efforts to gain passage of Senate bill S-513 co-sponsored by Senators Jon Bramnick and Joe Cryan requiring bail for criminals who have used a gun to commit a crime.
This is a great first step, but there’s more that needs to be done. Mayor Radest and I are organizing a coalition of suburban mayors to coordinate our own efforts to address the criminal activity in our communities in collaboration with the Urban Mayors Association and our legislators. More to come.
EDISON FIELDS UPDATE
Regarding Edison Fields, our Town professionals and Recreation Commission have been compiling data and information for the last several weeks to respond to the many questions that have been raised by neighbors. Rather than responding to each question piecemeal, the Edison Fields working group is putting together a document to address them holistically that will first be shared with the Neighbor Advisory Council at a meeting on February 23.
Once their input has been received, it will be shared more broadly with the public.
Last night, the Planning Board approved the Williams Nursery project with conditions related to stormwater runoff and traffic management. Since I recognize the change in use of this site has been top of mind for many, I wanted to provide some context.
The Williams Nursery site has been zoned for affordable housing since the 1990s. When I’m asked why it can’t be repurposed for another use, even for green space, the answer is straightforward: Any property previously zoned for affordable housing must either (1) maintain its current use, or (2) be developed into inclusionary multi-family housing once the owner chooses to sell. Those are the only options. So, unless there are buyers who would pay fair market value and be willing to maintain the property as a nursery, the property must be sold and developed for the express purpose of enabling affordable housing.
Several underdeveloped sites along the North and South Avenue corridor from Central Avenue to the Garwood border have also been zoned as affordable housing overlay zone districts, where the same laws apply. It’s worth noting that just because the zoning is in place for these sites does not mean they will all be developed now or in the future. The Town was only required to enable the development opportunity through zoning to meet its obligations.
I have written a Letter to the Editor to appear this week in our local press outlets that takes a much more detailed look at some common misconceptions about adding apartments to our town – addressing the background and affordable housing requirements, as well as the potential impact on our schools, Town services, and small town charm.
There are legitimate concerns about the impact of new development on traffic and congestion. I share these concerns, as do the mayors of neighboring towns, and collectively we recognize that our planning is interrelated; development in one town will impact mobility and circulation in other towns along the corridor. To that end, I’ve established the first Mayors Mobility Coalition, comprised of myself and the mayors of Cranford, Garwood, Fanwood, and Scotch Plains. We are working together to mitigate traffic and circulation challenges that proposed new development may bring, focusing on the North and South Avenue corridors. Specifically, we are working to secure County and State grants to assist in developing a mobility and circulation plan for the entire corridor, prioritizing safer streets and enhanced bike, pedestrian, and vehicular access.
FINANCE POLICY COMMITTEE ITEMS (Remarks by Councilwoman Habgood, Finance Policy Committee Chair)2022 Budget
Thanks to everyone who attended the public budget forum at the end of January, hosted by the Town Council Finance Policy Committee, where we reviewed the performance of the 2021 budget, provided an overview of the 2022 budget process, and solicited input from residents prior to this year's budget formation.
The committee reported the good news that, despite the ongoing fiscal uncertainties driven by COVID, the Town did fairly well in 2021, in large part due to reserves, healthy tax collections and necessary budget reductions made in 2020 to position the Town for success in 2021 and beyond. Importantly, in this challenging environment, we generated $3.6MM in surplus ($1MM more than we generated the previous year) to end 2021 with a $9.4MM surplus balance. If you missed it, the presentation is posted on our website
, and you can submit any follow-up questions to firstname.lastname@example.org
. Sewer Fees
It’s always good to be able to report when our costs are not increasing, which we recently learned is the case with our sewer fees assessed by the Rahway Valley Sewerage Authority (RVSA). While we are hearing an ordinance on second reading tonight to amend the current “not to exceed” rates for annual sewer fees – which were last updated in 2014 – we will also vote on a resolution to set this year’s sewer fee to match last year’s.
CODE REVIEW AND TOWN PROPERTY COMMITTEE ITEMS(Remarks by Councilman Parmelee, Code Review & Town Property Committee Chair) Public Comment Ordinance
We’ll hear an ordinance on second reading tonight amending the public comment time from ten minutes to five minutes. As I mentioned at our last meeting, the intention of this amendment is to create an opportunity for as many members of the public to speak as possible, especially as we review topics of importance that draw high levels of community engagement. We’re glad to see that the majority of the feedback on this ordinance has been very positive, including that of our paper of record, The Westfield Leader
, as we align our public comment time to be consistent with most other New Jersey municipalities. Street Openings and Excavations
We’re introducing an ordinance tonight to amend our road paving requirements to provide residents with a more feasible and economic solution who need to open the road in order to convert their home from oil to gas heat. Currently, that homeowner would have to pay for 100 feet of curb-to-curb paving – just as we require of our utility companies and developers – in order to preserve our newly paved streets. This amendment allows for an infrared small patch to instead be used in these circumstances.
We will be monitoring the impact of this ordinance to ensure it applies to only those limited circumstances. If at any point it is impacting the integrity of our road paving program, we will revisit allowing for this exception. Poles, Wires, and Wireless Telecom Facilities Ordinance
This ordinance on first reading aims to adopt clear, uniform, and comprehensive standards, regulations, and permit requirements for the installation of small wireless facilities within the Town’s rights-of-way. It will also better manage access to and use of our rights-of-way by traditional utilities that provide electric, wired telephone, fiber optic, or wired cable TV service. Many thanks to the Technical Advisory Committee, led by Mark Friedberg, and also to resident David Krieger, for their input and areas of expertise in drafting this ordinance. Fees, Deposits, Guarantees, and Other Payments
This ordinance on first reading updates our development application and escrow fees, which were last revised in 2008, and the fees suggested are based upon those charged by other municipalities in New Jersey. The ordinance also permits the Zoning Officer to charge her time spent on reviewing applications that are before one of our boards so that these costs are not the responsibility of all taxpayers and instead paid by the applicant. Many thanks to Don Sammet for all of his work on this ordinance.
With that, let’s get to work.