During the pandemic, we’ve all spent much more time in Verona. What have you discovered about our town?
Top of the list of what I’ve discovered is how close this town is and how generous the people in this town are. A good example would be that many of our businesses during the pandemic, ones that were even struggling, stepped up and provided meals for Mountainside Hospital and they reached out to help other businesses, even though they were struggling themselves. Groups of residents stepped up, made food themselves and distributed it to Mountainside Hospital. It is a very, very generous township that we live in. People just reach out and are always willing to go the extra mile and help the neighbors out. The other big one I saw towards the end of the pandemic: One store owner, I won’t even mention them because they were a little hesitant to receive some funds, but a business owner had a kitchen burn down in their house. And, obviously, they couldn’t focus time on their business. I think they shut down for a little bit, but a GoFundMe raised a good bit of money for them and it was donated through the Chamber of Commerce. It’s was a significant amount of money, almost close to $10,000. It’s one of many examples of fundraising through the pandemic that people stepped up and were generous about.
[perfectpullquote align=”left” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”#3355FF” class=”” size=””]Some of our pipes are 100 years old, they’re original to the neighborhoods that they’re in. [/perfectpullquote]
What’s the biggest problem that Verona needs to solve in the next 4 years?
In the next four years, there’s quite a few that should be addressed. We have an aging infrastructure–our stormwater pipes underground, our sewer pipes underground, wastewater and even our water supply piping underground. Some of our pipes are 100 years old, they’re original to the neighborhoods that they’re in. Little by little we have been trying to solve that, but that entails ripping up the roadways when we do it, incorporating that into roadway replacement. We do a replacement every 20 years–every road in town gets redone. I know this year Lynwood is getting done; next year, Ann Street, Cypress and Willow are on the docket for a new waterline. There are constantly water main breaks there. I think that really is number one, but that’s going to be a time-lapse thing of more than four years. I will say one thing that needs to be addressed if we look at all of our institutions in town. I think our major one is our police station. We have a growing police force, we’ve added four or five new officers and in the last, I think, four or five years. The facility there is original to this town, so their locker rooms need to be upgraded; I think our jail facility would even need to be upgraded. That’s one that I will be focusing on. I think we need to upgrade our police offices and facilities.
What could Verona do to be more sustainable?
In the last four years we instituted several ordinances to protect our environment. I think the latest one was February, our stormwater management ordinance. I do believe that this will continue if I’m in office. That was one of my goals and I talked about it four years ago when I got in. Verona, I think, is a very sustainable town. What more we can do? Next online for me would be a blasting ordinance. I’ve been proposing that for, for many years. I would be happier if it wasn’t just a blasting ordinance but a ban on blasting in the town, but that would be a little too severe, and I don’t think people would be happy with me. I don’t think it’s allowed because the state has control over that. But, to be more sustainable, I think those are things we just continue in that direction. I say we make sure that development that is ongoing in town, or redevelopment for that matter, should become more green as far as the installation of green roofs, and tone down development so that the entire property isn’t paved for a parking lot. In the last 10 years that’s all they do, they maximize everything there. I’d like to see in the future any development that we have be more like an Ardleigh Mews or a Wedgwood Gardens where you have a building, you have your parking and you have beautiful courtyards in there also. We need a nice balance in our developments.
Verona’s municipal budget accounts for 26% of our tax bills and the Town Council’s recent budget workshops have given us a preview of what those might be in 2021. What concerns you about the new budget and why?
I’m going to start by correcting you. I believe the municipal end of it is 24%, but we can look at that later. I’ve been on the Council for four years and I paid attention to the budget for five or six years prior to that. There was always back and forth, things taken out of the budget or moved around. This was truly the first year that I would say, overall, the entire council didn’t have a problem with the budget. We thought it was going to be a lot higher because of lost revenue last year due to COVID. However, it came in at two and a half percent. But we were happy it was 2.4% because we expected three and a quarter or three and a half. So as far as the budget goes it we–when I say we, it’s really our manager and our CFO that present the budget to the council–I think they’ve been really above board, and really putting the budget, you know, tightening it up and giving it a good look over before they present it to the Council, because they know how strict we have been. I think this year, there really wasn’t too much that we took out of the budget, and I really compliment our CFO and our manager for their work on that.
In February, Gov. Phil Murphy signed bills legalizing recreational marijuana use among adults. What should Verona do about legal marijuana?
Verona has to make a decision by the middle of April, and whatever decision is made, whether it be an ordinance, it has to be fully executed before then. Some people have talked about letting the next Council take care of it. However, if we wait until July 1 it will be too late. I’m gonna go back and just explain that we have two options. We can opt in and allow recreational marijuana sales in Verona. If we opt in, we are locked in for five years. However, option number two is we can opt out. And if you opt out, you can then pass an ordinance and opt in at any time in the future, so we can wait until next year and do it. So my advice, and what I’d be pushing the rest of the Council to do, is to opt out for now because we have no idea what the legislation is going to be, I don’t think. I’ve been reading articles on it, I don’t think it’s going to be clear, written and given to us, I would say, within the next nine months to 12 months. So it’s going to be a year before we see that. I don’t think any decisions should be made before we can read through that, see exactly what it is. However, in the meantime, I truly believe, once the Planning Board starts redoing the Master Plan and the zoning ordinance–they won’t be doing the zoning ordinance, but it will come as a result of the Master Plan. I truly believe that we should then evaluate our town and make that on what areas of town we may or may not want it in. I think that it would be imperative to get that done prior and then let the next Council decide when to opt in or out, but currently my stance is we need to opt out until we have a clearer picture of what exactly the distribution of licensing will be.
[perfectpullquote align=”full” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”#3355FF” class=”” size=””]I don’t think Verona needs any more development. I think we need redevelopment in the appropriate places. [/perfectpullquote]
When Verona updates its Master Plan and Zoning Ordinance, what do we need to think about?
I don’t see how someone can come out and say, “I know what needs to be done, this is what we’ve got to do to” at this point, because in order to redo our Master Plan, several things have to happen. We have to hire a company to do a full inventory of all of our properties in Verona, what’s conforming and what’s non-conforming. We did this back in 2009, and there has been so much building, so many additions people are putting on. I seriously think that the non-conforming is greater now, so we have to do an evaluation of the properties we have, we have to do an evaluation. We just had a census–what about the population changes in Verona. What about the economic conditions of our township as a whole but also our downtown. How about the vacancy rates of our businesses, not just during COVID, but prior. I hear from people all the time, “Well I drive through town and there’s all these papered up windows and businesses, stores are out.” I think we need to know. You know, the degree of foreclosures in Verona. Verona was hit hard years ago with the economy. So I think there are a lot more foreclosures in town that people don’t realize. I think we need to do an evaluation of our facilities. Our infrastructure as far as our water treatment facility, our wastewater facility, you know all these things. We have to evaluate, and then step into our Master Plan after the evaluation. I think that’s a time when we can set goals. You don’t want to speculate prior to the evaluation, I don’t think it’s good. I think if you’re doing that, you’re making an educated guess as to what the township needs. But with that being said, after an evaluation is done I do think that, as far as the Master Plan goes and the zoning ordinance, we need to have a balance in our building between green and sustained sustainable growth. I think that’s an important thing, this town. According to that 2009 plan, this town is over 98% developed. So what are we now? We don’t have properties to develop; there are none. We don’t have infill lands here and there to put buffers into to tone down or lessen as you come out of the town center. Most of the properties in Verona right now are overbuilt, they’re probably over the allowable coverage. The R zone–R50, R40–is 40% coverage. I say, most, most are probably over that coverage or darn near close to it. And what’s the result of that? FEMA last year came out with a new flood map and it’s expanded. There’s streets–East Reid, Linden, Franklin, the bottom of Personsonette–that flood zone is so far up the bottom of those streets it’s scary. Derwent even, it touches the back of all those houses, so that’s a result. And all that coverage and all that runoff, it puts a stress on our infrastructure and ages it that much more quickly. Now, when we jump to the zoning ordinance side of it, going back to the 98% developed, and where do we develop? I don’t think Verona needs any more development. I think we need redevelopment in the appropriate places. And I think the appropriate place for redevelopment in Verona is our town center. There’s many areas down there that could use some redevelopment. We just did the overlay zone between South Prospect and Montrose, and I think that’s a crucial area. We could be adding 100 or 150 units in that area, but we need it to be smart, and we need it to blend into the area downtown. Our Town Center zoning requires your height of 50 feet, or three stories. In our zoning ordinance if you go to, I believe 158.3, there’s a little line in there that says you have to have a 50-50 split between residential and retail. The problem with that is, that means that the second floor would be half retail, and that’s not going to happen in the downtown. So I think one little line should be added to our zoning, at least in that area, that this 50-50 split does not pertain to the Town Center, because then they can do retail first floor, two stories above. There’s really only like four or five buildings in the downtown that are three stories. And I think with development across the street from the Verona Inn near the Learning Express–that empty lot there that everybody always talks about–it would be appropriate for three stories. I think the redevelopment has to stick to that area. The Extended Town Center, the other districts, I believe it should stay a little lower because those areas really abut residential directly. And I think going too high in those areas would create an inconvenience and really change those residential neighborhoods behind. Sorry if I got a little winded on that one.
Verona now gets a lot of money from PILOT agreements and there have been disagreements over how to spend it–and share it. What do we do about that?
PILOT [Payment In Lieu Of Taxes] is a question that I know was big four years ago. The majority of our PILOT funds right now come from the Hilltop. We are close to $760,000 or $770,000 for those buildings up there. When those buildings were put up, and that PILOT program was set, it was earmarked to pay for the new fields that we put up on the Hilltop. So those funds go directly towards the bond, the note that pays for those fields. We have others. Annin was one, Verona place. There’s money there that comes from PILOTs. They did kind of offset a lot of revenue that was lost from last year, so they were helpful, and it came in a lot higher than we anticipated, which was good and very helpful. How should we share PILOT funds? Well this is the one thing a lot of people don’t understand about PILOT funds. The Board of Education’s budget is basically capped at 2%. So no matter what, next year, their budget is going up 2%. They send that bill to the township. The township has to pay that bill. So even if the township wanted to say hey, we’re gonna give you $200,000 and I think the budget is $38 million, let’s say 40 for round numbers, 2% is $800,000. Let’s say the town wanted to give them 400 they’re still only going to get another 400. So I think the way we should deal with PILOT funds and the schools is that if we want to give them money, if these new PILOT agreements come up, and we have extra funds, we can help out the schools, say for building repair, building maintenance, a new boiler. This way, down the road, we’re taking care of some of those jobs, we are paying for that, so we won’t have to go out for referendums and if we go it could be a little bit lower and probably a little easier for the public to swallow and vote for. We do that strictly PILOT, I’m not going to go into share.
During your first term, a citizen petition drive blocked the Town Council’s plan to put the Rescue Squad in a new building. One of the firehouses has had some serious structural issues. What does Verona need to do to address the infrastructure needs of its first responders?
Since your earlier question only asked for one, I started off with the Police Department. The number two is our Rescue Squad. They’re in a building that’s very old. They, the reason why I brought up the Police Department first is because a couple years ago we redid their contract, we put them on the Pitman Schedule so they went from an eight-hour day to a 12-hour day, so those police officers live in that building for a good portion of the day. That’s why I put them first. The Rescue Squad, I believe, is in need. They have a large membership–125. If they had a facility that people could stay in, they could respond to calls a lot faster. Now, I don’t think they’re going to miss many more than last year, they answered almost every call so hats off to the Rescue Squad. But we need to think about them. They’re up on the list. The real problem was dealing with our affordable housing issue in the last four years. The amount of money we spent on land acquisition to satisfy our mandate really took away from putting money towards our emergency services. The give and take, it was really sad. I really think that, going back to the petition to stop the Rescue squad from going in at 56 Grove Avenue, we could have had a Rescue Squad building. I was very shocked by it. I thought it was a perfect location for our Rescue Squad and I believe all the members of the Rescue Squad also thought the same, as far as the financial aspect of that. The building was already built. The cost to put the Rescue Squad there could have been a million maybe a million and a half dollars, as opposed to building a new facility that’s going to be three, three and a half million dollars. So it was, to me, tragic that that got turned down because the Rescue Squad would have been living in a new home right now and really centralized in the center of town.
[perfectpullquote align=”right” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”#3355FF” class=”” size=””]I would like to see businesses that are destination driven.[/perfectpullquote]
You were part of the group that re-started the Verona Chamber of Commerce. What else can the Council do to support and broaden the business community?
In the last couple of months, we’ve been talking about having more members of the Chamber step up, so we’re going to, in the coming months, try to increase membership. During COVID I think it really benefited the business to have the Chamber up and running. We had the list of businesses, we work very closely with them. I can’t say enough about how many compliments I got about the work that Steve Neale [Verona’s director of economic development] has done through COVID and keeping businesses informed. It’s not a direct result but a very high result of what the Chamber has done and having the Chamber active. What more can a township do? It’s difficult to say because the township does not own all the property downtown. You still have to deal with the property owners and if the property owners don’t want to put money into the property, then we can’t do anything. Maybe we can have some type of tax incentive to improve the facade of the building. Yes, it will raise the value of your property. Maybe we have put a delay on tax increases, so you get a two-year hiatus from any increase in taxes. Maybe we just do one, but some kind of incentive like that. We always talk about new businesses coming to town. How do you do that? You have to have people that want to invest in town. If you don’t have people that want to invest, or have people that want to take that risk, then it becomes difficult. I would like to see businesses that are destination driven. We used to have a movie theater in town. We used to have a supermarket in town. We used to have a bowling alley. Those were businesses that crowds of people would be drawn to. It would enhance the businesses around them, people would say, let me just stop and get something else over here while I’m on the avenue. Those businesses that can bring other groups of people like, maybe, an arts and crafts business. If the town can somehow promote these things–and we will to the best of our ability–we’re open to ideas. Our director of business improvement, which is Steve, is always open to listening to any ideas that residents can think of. We can make it a little easier for businesses to move in town. We have added things to our town website, questions that in the past weren’t on there if you wanted to move into town. There’s a list of what you’ll need. What our zoning ordinances are as pertaining to new businesses moving in town. One big change in our zoning ordinance that I would like to see is that you do not have to go before the Board of Adjustment for a change of use, if it’s already a permitted use in town. Those are just things that unfortunately because of the delay with our affordable housing and COVID we haven’t gotten to. In the future, we hope to get that changes to make things easier, I think it’s a big one. If I can go on a bit more, in the fall of 2019 I was asked by one of the gentlemen on the Recreation Committee who was involved with e-sports to go to Caldwell College, which has an e-sports management program and an e-sports team. They had an event and a team of kids from Verona was in the room. I don’t think I’ve ever seen an event where every single kid was glued to what was going on. I thought to myself, if this was a business it would have been phenomenal to find a place in the center of town for it. An e-sports room or arena would be a huge draw. But I know the cost of putting it would be very large because we’re dealing with high-tech computer and servers. I think it would be a very large cost and therefore probably not something many people could just venture into.
With all the new people who have moved to Verona over the last decade, we may finally be at the tipping point between old and new Verona. As the Town Council candidate who has lived in Verona the longest, what aspects of Old Verona do you hope we carry forward as we become New Verona?
That’s very easy. We need to preserve the character of our town. We need to prevent large development, which greatly changes the character of the town. And I think our character is the number one or two reason why people choose Verona. I would say number two, because I truly believe the schools are Verona’s number one asset, and a big compliment to the Board of Education. I do think though about the character of Verona and the neighborhood charm. You drive down any street, on a night like today where it’s beautiful out, and you’ll see five or six neighbors and all the kids playing. Every street is really its own little neighborhood in one very large and very great community. And that’s why I really truly believe that we need to keep redevelopment–not even development–redevelopment focused on the town center. All those neighborhoods can walk to town center. Verona is a very, very walkable town. We have a beautiful park right in the center, which is a destination for many, many people, especially over the last year. They wanted to get out, get a breath of fresh air, and at least see other people. So I think we’re a very walkable town. And I think that the charm of Verona is something that I don’t even have to wish it’s going to stay, I know that the people that are moving to this town will keep it. Sixty years ago, my parents moved out of Brooklyn and Queens. They moved here because they said it was “the country” at that time. It’s not the country anymore, but they moved for the charm of Verona, and I truly believe yes, there’s been development and yes, it’s changed, but I truly believe it’s in a real positive way, and stayed the same as a community.