The 2017 election cycle, in essential ways, is the most important I can recall.
Locally and nationally there are issues and imperatives that are undeniable, no matter your political affiliation. Participants across South Orange-Maplewood are immersed in discussing, and helping to mend, real tears in our civic fabric. At the SOMA Action event this past weekend, we even speed-dated the candidates. Speed dating of likable politicians…that is engagement! While the path ahead may be long, the breadth of our discussions is a positive beginning.
With the help of eleven dedicated local candidates, active local organizations and diligent local media we are weaving all the important issues into the debate. My purpose in writing today is to discuss one of these in particular; to offer an “issue endorsement” and explain what I feel we should expect from our candidates—and more importantly, demand of our elected body in Maplewood.
The debates for Township Committee seats have included several questions regarding development, and two of the three candidates feature the topic in their statements and platforms. The relevance locally is quite clear: the pace of development in Maplewood over the past ten years may be the greatest it has been at any point in the past one hundred. The characteristics of the development have also shifted markedly, with increasingly dense multi-family proposals being approved with far less local ownership involved. In one case a publicly traded company (Avalon Bay, market cap $25 billion) acquired approved development plans from a regional developer (JMF Properties) on the same morning that the developer purchased the property from the former owner (PSE&G). Under present market forces, our growth is shifting from a measured, organic one to an almost frenetic, financially driven model. Renewal and growth are essential, but their form matters greatly.
Ideas for development can legitimately come from many places. Our laws, however, show clear intent for the community to express, and renew, its views through zoning law and other mechanisms. The frequent refrains regarding the benefits or “realities” of a market economy notwithstanding, goals are most properly set by the community at large. In our case, we are operating from a Master Plan that was last publicly reviewed in 2004, and development plans (three in the Springfield Avenue area) that have not been publicly discussed since their approval 8-10 years ago. In 2011, our hired planner recommended a comprehensive re-writing of our zoning ordinance, yet since that time we’ve moved forward with major land sales and new projects without acting on that recommendation. This disconnect between planning processes and community awareness undermines knowing what is best for our town. The fact that it is occurring at time of un-precedented development is a situational reality that should concern us all.
Our values and aspirations, and with time, our civic fabric, would benefit from changes to our approach. We are overdue for a community wayfinding, and community based navigation going forward. We elect our leaders to negotiate and close deals—to pilot the ship and bring it safely to the next port, if you will. The purpose of the voyage, and its navigation, must clearly represent all of those who embark.
There are several changes that would put this metaphor into concrete terms:
- Fully activate the Township calendar alerts so that “opt-in” personal alerts are generated for all Township meetings
- Require electronic submission of all filings to Township Boards with strict deadlines that allow adequate time for Board and community review
- Create an advisory function that is distinct from the statutory roles of the Township Boards
- Initiate a comprehensive Master Plan review
- Establish communication and engagement processes, with metrics, that are tasked with fostering and sustaining community engagement
During this election we are presented with three candidates for Township Committee that have business and governing skills germane to these issues, and two that have presented platforms with explicit recommendations for changes to our development processes. Wherever your ballot finger lands this Tuesday, I ask that land use planning and development factor into your choices. I also ask that when our new Committee is seated on January 1, 2018, that you join me in demanding changes that will bring views from across our Township directly into our planning processes. The fabric will thank us.
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This site chronicles the five year public process leading to the construction of Clarus Maplewood, and in the semi-retirement years since that journey, some of the other development topics across Maplewood. We recently re-arranged it to provide easier access chronologically or by topic area. Check out the changes by using the search box, or using the project overview.