Blog for Highland Park

Welcome to the Blog for Highland Park, a weblog chronicling events in Highland Park, NJ from an alternative perspective to the often one-sided slant of the official borough newsletter.

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Location: Highland Park, New Jersey, United States

I am a freelance writer and community activist who has worked on many progressive and Democratic political campaigns over the last 25 plus years and a lifelong resident of Highland Park, NJ. I have a BA in Journalism from Rutgers University, an MA in Middle East Studies from Harvard University, and an MEd in English Education from Rutgers Graduate School of Education. An enthusiastic amateur astronomer, I have just completed Swinburne University Astronomy Online's Graduate Certificate of Science in astronomy and am pursuing a Masters of Science in astronomy at Swinburne. I am also an actress with experience in theatre and film and have written a full length play. I am currently working full time on a book "The Little Planet That Would Not Die: Pluto's Story."

Monday, October 27, 2008

The Greening of Highland Park: Myths and Facts

Is Highland Park really New Jersey’s “first green community,” and if so, who designated it as such? The answer may surprise you. The reality is that no one bestowed this distinction on our borough other than Meryl Frank herself. It is not an award we won, a title we were given, or anything more than a self-proclaimed statement by Frank, done conveniently before the 2003 mayoral election in an effort to use the green issue to promote herself.

Over the last few years, “going green” and taking steps to reduce carbon emissions and adopt environmentally friendly policies has been a popular trend not just in New Jersey but around the country and even the world. Highland Park has taken some of these initiatives, but it is hardly alone in doing so. Some other towns, counties and school districts have much stronger environmental records than Highland Park does. The difference is that the leaders of these towns, counties and school districts have not engaged in the active marketing and self-promotion that Frank has. That self-promotion involves a deliberate blurring of the boundaries between the persona of Frank and the town and an active effort to wrap herself in a well-marketed green package. She is a product of sleek packaging, of an advertising age where image all too often triumphs over substance.

Since Frank is continuing to tout herself as the “Queen of Green,” it is important to distinguish myths from facts when it comes to the greening of Highland Park.

Two points stand out here. First, Highland Park and its residents were green and environmentally conscious for decades, long before Frank came onto the scene. Conveniently, she has taken credit for initiatives that long predate her. Second, the actual record shows that Frank’s administration has not been nearly as green as she presents or as she would like others to believe.

The citizens of Highland Park have maintained a strong environmental commitment to for decades, long before Frank even moved here. In the early 1990s, Mayor Jeffrey Orbach successfully fought to save the Rutgers Ecological Preserve from development by the university. Mayor James Polos, whom Frank has routinely disparaged with false and defamatory remarks, preserved four acres of borough-owned land on River Road from a real threat of development and obtained initial funding for our Environmental Education Center. It was Polos who first proposed a greenway running across town from Johnson Park through Donaldson Park and up into the borough-owned property known as the Meadows.

The late Richard Marx, a Green Party council candidate in 1999, drafted stream corridor and steep slopes protection ordinances that ANJEC used as models for the state. When I ran for Borough Council as a challenger in 2002 against Frank's candidates, I advocated the adoption of these ordinances while my opponents never mentioned them. Although I did not win the election, the ordinances were subsequently adopted within a year due to the attention the council race forced on them. Notably, this was four years after Frank took office.

As the above examples show, Frank has routinely taken credit for initiatives pioneered and advocated by others, including her political rivals and a man no longer with us.

Then comes the other side of the equation, the one Frank does not want you to know—the fact that she and her record are nowhere as green as she would like everyone to believe.

Frank's 2020 plan is not the well-rounded, wholesome vision she portrays it to be.
Instead, that vision deliberately blurs the concept of the town being a green community with Frank's own agenda of economic redevelopment. Frank is an outspoken supporter of "new urbanism" and wants to see higher density commercial and residential development in our town, which many oppose because it would have detrimental environmental effects such as increased traffic congestion and pollution. She has stated many times that our small town is not suburban but urban, a vision disputed by many residents.

For nine years, environmental activists have urged the rezoning of several acres of borough-owned property known as the Meadows, from residential to conservation. Frank has repeatedly refused to consider this. She also cost the borough the opportunity to preserve some of the land on South Adelaide Avenue formerly owned by the YM-YWHA by refusing to respond to a county offer to purchase some of that land as
open space. As a result of her stonewalling, the financially-troubled YM-YWHA sold the property to a developer, who is likely to institute a zoning change she advocated for this land in the 2003 Master Plan revision. The land was zoned quasi-public; at her recommendation, the Master Plan calls for it to be rezoned riverfront residential.

As for the Environmental Education Center, we spent $800,000 on what amounts to little more than a bus stop. The Center cannot be used because it was built on contaminated land! Why was there such a lack of oversight regarding this taxpayer-funded project? Frank’s administration spent close to a million dollars on a site that cannot be used by anyone—children or adults—because no one bothered to do proper due diligence before beginning the Center’s construction.

At the same time that this money was spent on what amounts to little more than a vanity project—plus another million on a second vanity project, the million dollar park at the corner of Raritan Avenue, Lincoln Avenue, and River Roads—our firefighters are endangering their lives with torn equipment and gear. Their repeated requests to the borough to replace this equipment and gear have been denied. Whatever happened to safety first?

The Environmental Education Center has no solar panels because overspending led the borough to run out of the money necessary to fund them. Meanwhile, the solar
panels placed on the roof of Borough Hall, which Frank so proudly brags about, do not work. Their biggest “success” was serving as a backdrop for Frank posing for the cover of New Jersey Municipalities magazine! The geothermal heating system installed at Irving School does not work either, and the building has insufficient heat. No other municipal buildings have been made “green” in any way.

We all remember that Frank was responsible for the huge cell tower placed in the center of the downtown in the spring of 2007. She subsequently lied in claiming Verizon misled her regarding the size and nature of the tower. I and others in the political opposition obtained a copy of the contract that proved she knew exactly what she was signing. Only due to intense political pressure was the cell tower taken down and relocated.

At Frank’s initiative, management of the Street Fair was turned over to a private company, which requires all participants to enter via a procession of vehicles through Donaldson Park. I have taken part in this procession personally and have seen vehicles bumper-to-bumper idling for over an hour—an emissions nightmare.

Let’s address some of Frank’s other so-called accomplishments. She cites hybrid police vehicles. What about police officers on bicycles? We used to have them; why don’t we have them anymore?

A commuter shuttle bus to New Brunswick was due to arrive in the spring of 2007. This is the fall of 2008. Where is it?

Frank takes credit for events like the Townwide Yard Sale and the Farmers’ Market, both of which predate her by many years.

Promoting walking and biking? How exactly has she done that? We see a nebulous claim here with nothing concrete to back it up.

Expanding green utility initiatives? This was started by the state, which has now cut back on the program, meaning it is no longer an option for borough residents.

Anti-idling ordinance? This has been largely ignored and almost never enforced.

Green snow removal using calcium chloride? It turns out this is standard practice adopted simultaneously by many municipalities.

Aggressive Recycling? This is required by county and state mandate.

No Pesticides Policy? Various municipal and school sites, including the library, are still using potentially harmful pesticides. Look for the warning signs on the lawns next spring.

Brownfields to Greenfields? I challenge Frank to name one site where this has been implemented. The Meadows is an ideal candidate since it is borough-owned, but as stated above, Frank refuses to rezone it for conservation.

A Green Redevelopment Plan? Try a dead redevelopment plan because that is what it is. Redevelopment has nothing to do with going green in the first place. Highland Park’s plan is null and void anyway due to a state court ruling earlier this year that nullified redevelopment plans done without 45-days advance notice to property owners that their land could be taken by eminent domain as a result of being placed in “an area in need of redevelopment.”

In the end, we spent a whole lot of grant money—taxpayers’ money—on a redevelopment study and plan that never was green and that will never become reality. Don’t count on Highland Park getting another grant to redo either of these; this is all but impossible given New Jersey’s fiscal situation.

And don’t count on green leadership from Council President Elsie Foster Dublin either. Instead, ask how her 2003 Zoning Board application to add a dormer and a deck to her modest home managed to result in transforming that home into a mansion. Larger homes take more energy to heat, cool, and light—not exactly an environmental example here.

One issue that has come up in this year’s presidential race on all sides is the issue of candidates’ choices of friends and acquaintances. In Frank’s case, it is completely appropriate to note her strong friendship with developer Michael Kaplan, whose business headquarters, located at the Castle on River Road, was used on several occasions by Frank to host political fundraisers for herself and others.

Critical thinking is crucial to democracy. In Frank’s case, a clear distinguishing of the myths from the facts is long overdue. When Frank proudly proclaims Highland Park the “greenest of them all” and credits that to her individual efforts, let’s question whether this “empress” is really wearing any clothes.