Council Rubber Stampers Are Hurting Wayne

5/15/2021 from TapIntoWayne

Wayne is about to undergo one of the most significant transformations in its history – a 17% increase in housing units by 2025. The Superior Court may rule we have to do more as part of our legal 1999 – 2025 round 3 affordable housing obligation. The township did not begin approving deals to meet this obligation until December of 2019, twenty years after it began. For more than a year now, every Republican on our township council has told us what a phenomenal negotiator our Mayor has been to bring us to this point, rubber stamping his every move. Only the lone Democrat on the council and a dozen residents have offered criticisms and suggestions.

In other words, the Republicans are in lockstep, saying that the Mayor is a miracle maker, and nothing could be done better. All the approved concept plans and deals in progress are being negotiated in secret under supervision of the Superior Court. Residents and the council are told that even the most basic information, like an update of the Vacant Land Analysis that is part of our antiquated 1994 Master Plan, must be kept secret due to attorney-client privilege. Even beginning the process to update the Master Plan has been put on hold.

What would truly “phenomenal” negotiations have gotten us? For starters, we would have less development because there would be more than 1 in 5 affordable units, and we would have more attractive developments because we would not have exempted them from Wayne’s tree protection laws. Mayor Vergano’s main achievements has been stalling development and keeping the township’s immunity – nothing to brag about.

Wayne needs to add some critical thinkers to its government to begin proactive planning rather than just reacting. We should be marketing Wayne to reputable, forward thinking developers rather than hiding information from them and the public. “We don’t want to make it easy for developers,” Mr. Ettman said, echoing our Mayor. Please realize that unless Wayne’s approach changes, the best developers will seek out friendly towns to partner with, leaving Wayne at the mercy of the predators like Avalon Bay who just had its second catastrophic fire.

Ward 6 Councilor Jon Ettman’s participation in an April Zoom meeting of residents of our three lake communities is instructive. Mr. Ettman did his best to dominate the discussion. He was emphatic in calling for us all to trust the Mayor and realize what an excellent job he is doing. He went on to say the main difficulty we face is that “everything is negotiable.” In other words, we are working blind and cannot know what our obligation is. I pointed out that the 2271 unit obligation was established by a real legal decision and that township attorneys could give us no examples of other towns being awarded reductions like the one the Mayor is promising to less than 1000 units. Mr. Ettman turned the subject back to trust, saying that critics of the Mayor were making scurrilous allegations of corruption. I jumped in again because no such public accusations have emerged. Apparently, I do not spend enough time on social media, which I see as a magnet for negativity and conspiracy theories.

How did Wayne get in this situation? Our Mayor and Council believed Governor Christie years ago when he destroyed the Council on Affordable Housing, the state agency responsible for administering the Fair Housing Act (FHA) and encouraged municipalities to believe they could defy the New Jersey Constitution. When Governor Christie took office, Wayne’s Republicans stopped planning to satisfy its constitutional obligation – wishing and hoping it would go away. How anyone could believe Christie remains a mystery because the 1985 FHA had survived numerous legal attacks and rounds 1 and 2 had been successful. Christie’s pipe dream was squashed completely by a 2015 NJ Supreme Court decision that assigned FHA administration to the Superior Court after COAH refused to develop constitutionally compliant guidelines (although it had done so before 1999.)

Republicans on our Township Council have been silent as far as criticisms or even suggestions when it comes to this coming transformation of Wayne – repeating the “trust the Mayor and trust us to do what is best for Wayne” mantra. Mr. Ettman would not even support public meetings in neighborhoods where negotiations were beginning with developers– apparently believing that most residents are nothing but complainers. The thought that his constituents will make positive suggestions for development that would preserve the Wayne we love eludes him. He did not even seem to understand that a site plan review might overlook the upstream and downstream components of Wayne’s aging sewer and stormwater systems (built in the 1960s.) Moreover, he would not agree to recommend that the township begin the process of updating its Master Plan.

What can we do now? Attend Council and Planning Board meetings where developers are on the agenda. The Planning Board is where we can ensure that Wayne’s character is preserved – that inappropriate variances or exemptions from Wayne’s ordinances are not granted. Whether you intend to speak or not, attend via Zoom so they know you are there. Mr. Ettman and the Mayor have both noted that they check to see who attends on Zoom.

John Pennington

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