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2017 Reorganization Speech by Mayor Benjamin Smith
The Mayor’s address is the time at the start of the year where we take a moment to look back at the previous year and look to the future. In the past year I have read many of the minutes of this committee. I found it interesting that originally this Mayor’s address was given by the outgoing Mayor describing his or her year in this seat with the gavel. Somewhere along the way the tradition was delegated to the incoming Mayor’s job.
Firstly, I thank my colleagues for electing me Mayor for 2017. I am humbled by the opportunity and responsibility. Under the original Township Act of 1797 Readington and the other Townships in NJ were a town meeting form of government with the three members of the committee mostly paying bills and the citizens voting on the budget and major issues facing the Township. Imagine all our residents in one place arguing over each penny to be spent. The Township Act of 1899 modified township government to what we see today with all municipal powers vested in the Township Committee. In March 1900 Readington re-elected two members to finish their terms and elected a new member (local elections were in March back then). We later became a five-member committee. Including that election of 1900, I am the 69th person elected or appointed to this committee.
By way of traditions, after the reorganization meeting the committee would have a turkey dinner together. Another tradition that has lapsed with time. Also meetings moved around. Generally meetings alternated between North (Whitehouse or Whitehouse Station) and South (Three Bridges). They would be held at a hotel, a store or a firehouse. The first reference that I have found to our first municipal building, which I’m told is the current Rescue Squad building, was in 1956. For a while thereafter we still alternated meeting between that building and Three Bridges. Eventually that practice ceased. Getting to a meeting is easier by car than by horse or by foot so the need to alternate locations had lapsed. And then we built this building in 1968.
Enough of the history lesson
In 2016 I took the initiative to ask our staff to video record these meetings and post them to our website. We all have heard from people who could not attend a meeting, but watched the video.
This committee allocated funds to install electronic speed signs near the Rt. 523 and Pleasant Run intersection. These signs seem to have a positive impact and are slowing people down. The accident rate appears to have decreased with the signs.
Based on a grant from the PSEG Foundation/Sustainable Jersey Small Grant, Readington opened the Forest Hill Preserve (“a Learning Woods”), a 23-acre site to educate the community on woodland benefits. The Preserve is Readington open space located just east of Three Bridges
2016 was a year that included the opening of several of new businesses in Readington.
- Milano’s Mexican and Italian Restaurant
- Easy Eats
- Carlucci’s Bistro
- Peridot, an art studio
- Asian Lotus Retreat, a day spa opened
- (Apologies to others if you were missed on this list)
Various projects and businesses increased their footprint in Readington:
- Chubb is adding 165 parking spaces as it has designated Readington as their home office for operations encompassing North America and is bringing additional jobs to Readington
- Regency at Readington continues to build more 55-and-over housing (as of June they had closed on 73 of 74 homes and 15 of 137 townhouses)
- The Ryland Inn is rebuilding the guest cottages and meeting center and has cleared the land for their hotel
- The Farm on Rt. 22 continues to build out its structures
- Profetta Farms on Rt. 202 has broken ground on their organic farm stand
- The PNC bank on Rt. 22 will be rebuilt as doctors offices
- Other projects are in various planning stages and may break ground in 2017
Those are the positive things.
Lots of the Township Committee’s time is dedicated to resolving issues.
Early in 2016 the committee meeting room here was filled with citizens who were deeply concerned about the proposed Waypointe treatment center on Readington Road. The Committee investigated, found some zoning issues and communicated our concerns that existing state regulations need to be upheld. Their project was delayed while they addressed issues. Waypointe has since sued the Township for damages. Discussions continue towards resolving this lawsuit.
Merck continued to work with their contract purchaser to attempt to sell their property, but that sale became entwined with the Sewer case. Based on Readington’s actions that were directed by the courts, we were informed that the contract purchaser terminated the contract. Merck continues to look for a purchaser. Merck is also the highest-assessed property in Hunterdon County. In 2015 and 2016 they successfully negotiated with Readington to reduce their assessment and thus taxes (which impacts all tax payers), but then they sued to get a third reduction. As you can see in recent news articles that tax case is still pending.
The Sewer case continues to play out it never-ending saga. As a refresher, a developer was not happy that our sewer capacity was fully allocated and sued. The NJ Supreme Court upheld our ordinance but ordered the Township to review unused-but-allocated sewer capacity with the goal of some recapture. We did so and only found a little that wasn’t part of an active site plan. The court then ordered Readington to take back unused capacity from Merck and another company. We took back the sewer capacity that both parties testified that they had no plans to use with their approved plans. Both immediately sued the Township. This issue continues to play out in the courts.
Like every municipality in New Jersey the court-managed Council on Affordable Housing (or COAH) situation hangs over our heads. To save money we have pooled our legal resources with the other municipalities in Vicinage 13 to have one case for three counties instead of going it alone and footing a full legal bill. Unlike many towns, Readington was fully compliant with 1st and 2nd rounds, had an approved 3rd round plan (only 12% of municipalities were so approved), and continues to fund low and moderate income housing. As an example, we are working with a developer to put 68 units on the paper portion of Nelson Street in Whitehouse Station.
I was going to say that unlike many other years we did not have a major weather event such as the ice storms, Super Storm Sandy, or other storms that struck us regularly with what seems to be our annual 100-year storm. But that would be incorrect as we received eight inches of rain at the end of a parched July which caused significant flooding in the usual places and sadly caused the organizers to close the Balloon Festival a day early for safety reasons. In late 2015 Readington was approved for a $650,000 NJ 319(h) grant for water quality improvements and reducing non-point source pollution for the Pleasant Run and Holland Brook watersheds. State government moves with blinding speed and efficiency, so all of 2016 was used filing the needed paper work with final DEP approval received this past December. The project kicks off this quarter.
Solberg Airport has been the issue that has been the gorilla in the room for Township politics for over 50 years. 2016 was no different. We saw the end of the eminent domain trial case and the committee’s decision to appeal. There was the prerogative writs case (aka zoning-related) which was decided upon by relying on the decision for the eminent domain case instead of using the long-standing precedent of deferring to towns for zoning. These two issues were intertwined despite being previously separated by the courts. Personally I continue to prefer a negotiated agreement with both sides achieving their goals with an outcome that we all can live with. In December I had a random, unplanned conversation with Thor Solberg at a public event. I’d be happy to talk again if this could bring us to a solution.
The heroin epidemic continues to plague our state and country. In 2015 in the United States more people died of heroin overdoses than by bullets. Readington Police officers are regularly administering Narcan to save lives. Sadly sometimes they have repeat customers. And sadly it has taken too many of our residents. I have been a member of National Ski Patrol for 25 years. Our protocols rarely permit us to administer mediations and then only in dire situations. An example is using a person’s Epipen when they are unable. This year in our annual first aid refreshers we started learning about Narcan which will shortly become part of our treatment protocols. I can only hope that 2017 is the year that we get ahead of this issue and get the epidemic under control.
Our outstanding debt has been trending down for the past few years. Looking at what the Township pays for principal versus what we authorized for capital funding in 2016 and adding in some open space checks for previous projects, I think we should see that debt level to decline over 2015 in the 2016 annual debt-statement report.
In conclusion, 2017 will continue to see more of the same. As you can see many issues have detailed nuances and extensive history. We will work with our Master Plan, ordinances and boards to thoughtfully bring appropriate growth to Readington. We will defend our zoning. We will provide quality and cost-effective recreation programs and other municipal services to our citizens. We will continue to pay down our debt. We will keep the budget under control to minimize tax increase. I’m sure there will be a few legal bills along the way. But most of all we will work to keep Readington a great place to live.