During the pandemic, we’ve all spent much more time in Verona. What have you discovered about our town?
Well, one thing I discovered–or rediscovered–is the walkability of the town and how pleasant it is, in some places, but how difficult it is in other places. I’m a road runner so I’m used to going out and seeing the town, and, you know, really appreciating the beauty, the charm of its architecture, but being frustrated with some of the barriers that are there. I think that is becoming more evident to more people as they start walking around, getting their vitamin D breaks, get some sun, getting some fresh air. You see it in certain areas where sidewalks are there and then they disappear. You see it in some of the intersections that can be very dangerous. So that is something that I think I’ve rediscovered and I think a lot of people in town discovered, and it’s something that should be addressed and can be addressed in this Master Plan. We can do a comprehensive review of our traffic, our circulation, and what pedestrian infrastructure we’re providing. It doesn’t have to be just bandaid fixing: Hey, here’s a problem spot here. I think we can really dive into the entire circulation patterns of the town, and figure out how we can address this troubling issue to make the town more accessible and enjoyable for everyone. You see that charm walking, when you’re running, when you’re biking, and you miss it when you’re driving through.
What’s the biggest problem that Verona needs to solve in the next 4 years?
I think the problem that I am truly aware of as a member of the Planning Board and a land use and development attorney, and as someone who’s been paying attention to what’s going on with affordable housing, a big issue is going back to our Master Plan and looking at how we’re going to comply with the next round of affordable housing, which is coming up very shortly. So while we’re going to get a bit of respite in the next six to eight months once the settlement agreement is finalized, we have to get right back into the business of planning for the next round. It’s going to come up very quickly, and all of these things that people feel upset or frustrated about the process and impacts that some of these affordable housing mechanisms and these developments have had on their day-to-day lives, that’s going to be right back in play because unfortunately, the state isn’t going to fix this anytime soon, especially now in an election year for the governor. So we are going to be back where we were in 2015, trying to figure out what our obligations are going to be, because we won’t have that number. More likely than not we’re going to have to litigate or someone’s going to have to litigate to figure out what our obligation is going to be. That’s why I see my role, if I’m elected to Town Council, to be someone who can shepherd us through that process, knowing enough about the process to anticipate where our obligations might fall so we can put ourselves in positions that will not play catch up once we do get that number.
[perfectpullquote align=”left” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”#3355FF” class=”” size=””]We need to invest in our town in a way that will support us economically[/perfectpullquote]
What could Verona do to be more sustainable?
For me, sustainability has two different aspects. There is economic sustainability. We need to develop our town. We need to invest in our town in a way that will support us economically. We want stable growth. We don’t want boom or bust bubbles. We don’t want to be vulnerable to changes in the economic climate. We want resiliency, economically, and in that same way we also need resiliency in our built environment: Stormwater, flooding, those are major issues that the town faces. We’ve got a good stormwater management ordinance that’s going to address development prospectively, but we still have to address the existing environment because that ordinance is not going to impact what’s already there, like our aging infrastructure, like our traffic patterns. Those are all things that tie into sustainability from an environmental perspective, and again, that all goes right back to our Master Plan, which is coming up in the next year. So those are things that we need to address in that document.
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 have to commend [Township Manager] Matt Cavallo and [CFO] Matt Laracy in preparing this budget in such an uncertain time. They did it under immense constraints in terms of the lost revenue, and the increased costs having to deal with COVID. It’s, it’s great that we are getting a little over a million dollars from the recent federal recovery legislation. We’re still waiting on guidance on how we can spend that money so there’s still uncertainty there. But some of the things that concern me in that budget are, again, dealing with the loss of revenue, dealing with some of the line items for overtime for example, those are situations where it may make sense to look into that to see what are the staffing issues looking like. Does it make sense to make more hires because it’s cheaper to hire a new staff member, rather than paying time and a half and overtime? So those are things that we could look into. One thing that concerned me was with the sewer utility budget. There was a $3 million “other expenses” category, like miscellaneous expenses. That’s something I would like to see more clarification on. What goes into that category? Because it’s hard to critique or revise a budget when you don’t know what those line items are going into.
In February, Gov. Phil Murphy signed bills legalizing recreational marijuana use among adults. What should Verona do about legal marijuana?
This debate has been raging even before that bill was passed, with the medicinal marijuana application that was going to be right there in my neighborhood. It didn’t come about. But, as was predicted with the referendum, it’s now on the table again for recreational; we don’t even have the same control that we did last time. And it’s something that, regardless of what Verona decides to do, it’s going to be in our town because it’s a state law, there is going to be use. It’s a matter of whether or not we’re going to benefit from it. I’m very sensitive to the concerns. I have small children. I’m a parent concerned about the issues that marijuana presents, but I’m also a pragmatist, and if it’s going to be in our town, there’s funding available. It’s been categorized, at least from a medicinal standpoint as an essential service. And at a time where we are lacking revenues from businesses, it’s very difficult to turn away from a legal and available source of revenue that’s going to be happening regardless. But again, it comes down to uncertainty and the biggest factor for me is, what are the regulations of the new board going to look like? So I can’t say one thing, one way or another without knowing what the guidelines are going to be coming from the state. I did also want to mention that, you know I have spoken to [Verona Police Department] Chief Kiernan and about this, and in terms of some of the issues that people are generally concerned about increased crime or vagrancy, or things like that. Chief Kiernan is on top of it. He’s not concerned about those things in Verona. So that’s one thing that I consider when I’m thinking about this issue because our police are fantastic. They’re the ones on the front lines and they’re the ones with the expertise, and I’m going to defer to the experts.
[perfectpullquote align=”full” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”#3355FF” class=”” size=””]More likely than not we’re going to have to litigate or someone’s going to have to litigate to figure out what our [affordable housing] obligation is going to be.[/perfectpullquote]
The tagline for your campaign is “sustainable + inclusive”. In what ways is Verona not inclusive and what policies would you enact to change that if you’re elected to Town Council?
I want to highlight that I think Verona is a very inclusive place. My wife and I both grew up in small towns where we were usually the only brown face in the room. We’re used to that small town environment. But we had that feeling that we were tolerated, but not accepted. So when we went out to where we went to college, it didn’t feel like our homes were places that we could go back to. That’s why we love Verona so much because we don’t have that. We don’t have that feeling, right here. It is becoming a more diverse community. Everyone that we’ve interacted with has been welcoming. It has great opportunities for our children. So we want to build on top of that great foundation that we both already have in terms of improving the inclusivity. That goes to me personally in terms of what opportunities are we giving to other people like myself who are interested in this great community: Are we making spaces available for them? And that goes to my background in land use, zoning and housing, affordable housing experience. We do have these obligations mandated by the state to provide affordable housing. So if we have to create those units, let’s do it in ways that are inclusive to everybody. One thing that I’m critical of in terms of how this last round of affordable housing went is the fact that the vast majority of the affordable units are being placed on a single site, you know, towards the outskirts of town. And to me, from the perspective of wanting to incorporate people into our town, wanting to avoid the stigmas of affordable housing, and opening up the advantages that this town can have meeting all sorts of different people from different ethnicities, socio-economic backgrounds, ethnic backgrounds. You know this town really is a melting pot. And when we don’t develop our town in a way that fosters that melting pot by distributing those units, I think that’s a real hindrance on our town’s ability to be inclusive.
You’ve spoken of a plan for a new zoning overlay that would allow more multifamily residences on some of the single-family streets that intersect with Bloomfield Avenue. How does that address our future affordable housing obligations, and what impact would that kind of development have on Bloomfield Avenue traffic and our schools?
That proposal is just one example of the different approaches that we could take as part of a comprehensive look at our Master Plan on zoning and our affordable housing compliance. Instead of doing those things in isolation, let’s look at a holistic approach. So that’s one example of how that approach comes together. And again, it has to be borne out by the data. One of the biggest features of the next master planning process is that data collection that our professionals are planning is going to do about the traffic, about the circulation, about the housing types. When they do that survey will have the information we need to explore those type of solutions. When we see what the housing types are, what the makeup of those communities are, we can start looking at areas around that central business district of Bloomfield Avenue that might be appropriate for the option, and the incentive for property owners to provide an additional unit on their single-family home. What that does is, it promotes pedestrian traffic to Bloomfield, and it actually reduces those concentrations of traffic, because you’re spreading out the development. Just to give you an example of what that might look like: Let’s say you have an empty nester in that area. The kids have gone through our amazing public schools, they’re off to college, they’re starting their jobs. And, you know, that owner, they’re looking to retire, they’re going to be on a fixed income. And that large single-family house probably isn’t right for them. It’s a lot to maintain. It’s a lot to pay for, but they love the community, they want to stay. So by giving that block flexibility in zoning, it gives them the option to age in place instead of renovating for a sale and then moving out of the community to Pennsylvania, or Florida or somewhere where they can live in a smaller unit and afford it on a fixed income. We give them the option to stay in the town that they love. And also when you cobble it with our affordable housing program and all of the tools that the COAH regulations allow, that conversion can also benefit the town by providing an affordable unit. Verona, spent, what was the number, like $18 million as part of this affordable housing process, purchasing land for development, or just taking development off the table. That money could be invested into property by subsidizing those conversions, those renovations to improve the property, and the town gets credit for new affordable housing. So that’s just one example, but again it has to be borne out by the data. We’ve got to have our planners looking at it, it’s got to be part of a comprehensive, cohesive plan.
How can Verona make streets safer for cyclists and pedestrians, without adding to the car and truck traffic jams on Bloomfield Avenue?
Again it goes back to the master planning process and the traffic, and we see where those choke points are; we see what side streets or secondary streets don’t get as much traffic. Maybe we adjust the street parking and we start looking at possibilities of cohesive biking or pedestrian corridors that don’t necessarily focus on those main roads in Bloomfield Avenue, but provide a clear plan where residents can move about the town without facing those danger areas where it might go from a sidewalk to nothing, it might go from a two-way road where there’s enough room to bike and for cars to travel, to a very narrow single direction road and all of a sudden there’s a car on the sidewalk and there’s no room.
[perfectpullquote align=”right” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”#3355FF” class=”” size=””]Maybe we adjust the street parking and we start looking at possibilities of cohesive biking or pedestrian corridors …[/perfectpullquote]
On your platform, you make a point about making older buildings in town greener, and you use the term obsolete buildings. So what’s an example of an obsolete building in town and how would the Town Council incentivize a green revitalization of that building?
I don’t have an example specifically of a particular building that I want to target, but you generally know it when you see it’s an older building. It might have a very high vacancy rate. You might see disrepair in the facade, and it might be a building that is not in line with the scale of the other buildings in the commercial district. From an economic perspective that building is underutilized, and it’s just about reached the end of the useful life structure itself. It needs renovation, needs repair or it needs replacement. When we go through that master planning process, we can identify those sites, we can see what the underlying zoning is for them and if it was overly restrictive for that site, so that a property owner does not have the incentive to invest in property, as part of that planning process then we outline goals and objectives for how we would like to see that area developed. Because when property owners know that there’s a cohesive vision and their property can be part of that vision, it’s not going to be, “Well I’m the only one investing and everybody else is just going to keep their property the same,” then they’ll have more incentive to. If there’s a cohesive vision and they can be part of that, and they’re not going to be the only ones investing, that’s going to spur more activity.
You work for a law firm that is well known for its representation of developers in New Jersey. How would that shape your views for developing Verona and its next Master Plan?
While my firm represents some prominent developers, they don’t represent developers that I’m aware of that are active in Verona, and I personally, spend the majority of my practice representing municipalities and state agencies. My personal perspective is from the municipality, from that planning perspective, and that’s what really shaped my vision for Verona: My experience working with other towns and with state agencies from basically this same side of the aisle, so to speak. I’m aware of the needs of developers, but my focus is typically on municipalities and the long-term objectives of municipalities.