Opinion contributed by Phyllis Ronek |
A 100+ acre tract of wooded/vegetated land which thousands of us drive by each day and take for granted continues to be the subject of controversy in Middletown. Bordered by Route 35, Kings Highway East, and Kanes Lane, this last bit of untouched green space along the otherwise dismal and overdeveloped Route 35 has been designated an Area in Need of Redevelopment by the Township. This designation is usually reserved for blighted properties in order to lure developers to build on undesirable land. This site, however, is one of the most sought-after properties in the Township with no lack of interested parties for over 15 years. For this reason and others, Minding Middletown, a grassroots group of resident taxpayers, has filed a lawsuit challenging this designation and the actions of the Township Committee that would negatively impact our quality of life for decades to come.
Minding Middletown and many concerned residents have attempted to engage the Township, seeking to have some influence on the design of the Circus Liquors Redevelopment Plan, formerly known as Village 35. The group and the residents have been met with refusal to engage and often the words “Drop the lawsuit” from the Mayor. In fact, this lawsuit should have in no way prevented public input and participation prior to adoption of the Plan.
A public hearing on Ordinance 2018-3232, providing for the adoption of the Redevelopment Plan was on the agenda of the August 20, 2018 Township Committee meeting. Public comments were permitted during that one meeting only, and many of the 181 attendees spoke. The Township Committee made the choice to call upon those who had signed up to speak in reverse order, virtually assuring that the professionals and experts would be among the last to speak. Nevertheless, they and most of the residents persisted, some waiting five hours to have their turns.
The general public comprised the majority of those who spoke in opposition to the Plan, citing quality of life, traffic/safety, lack of transparency, and overdevelopment as the main issues. Also among those presenting evidence against the Plan as it was written were representatives of Clean Water Action, Sierra Club, Monmouth Conservation Foundation, Middletown’s own Open Space Preservation Committee, Middletown’s own Environmental Commission, and Old First Church, as well as individual planners, engineers, and environmental professionals who reside in Middletown. For most, possibly all, of these groups, this public hearing was their only opportunity to be heard by the Township Committee.
Sometime after 1 AM on August 21, 2018, when no further comments from the public were forthcoming, the Township Committee (comprised of 2 elected members and 3 APPOINTED members) voted immediately. There was no further consideration of the public’s questions or evaluation of the legitimate public and professional concerns that had been raised. That vote was 5-0, and Ordinance 2018-3232 was passed.
This meeting was the action of the Middletown Township Committee to meet the absolute minimum standards required by law, a public hearing prior to adoption of an ordinance. The residents, whose daily lives will be impacted by any development on this site for decades, were essentially shut out of the decision-making process, and going forward, the Planning Board would have limited ability to challenge the proposed plans.
The Township continues to hinder public input. A traffic study of the area surrounding the site is known to be complete, and access to this study has been requested by Minding Middletown via OPRA requests on two separate occasions. Both times the requests have been denied.
It has been almost two months since Ordinance 2018-3232 was passed, but the fight continues for a wiser plan for this unique space in our community. The lawsuit remains in place. We continue to pursue access to the traffic study. Residents continue to attend Township Committee meetings and ask questions and demand answers from the governing body. They, and we, believe that Middletown deserves better.
Member of Minding Middletown
This article was first published in the Oct. 18-24, 2018 print edition of The Two River Times.
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