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."

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

So Wrong on So Many Levels

Highland Park residents should be ashamed of the tripe their tax dollars are supporting in the form of the Highland Park Quarterly, which reaches an all-time low in its Fall 2009 issue.

So much in this publication is wrong on so many levels, it is hard to know where to begin.

How about the events it chronicles, which go back to May of this year. Why is it that only a select few events of the last five months made it into this "community newspaper?" Readers are informed about a Kite Flying Day in May and a senior wedding conveniently officiated by the mayor, but no mention is given to a host of significant other developments that took place during this time. Where is the mention of the most successful People's Organization for Progress-Board of Health annual Health Fair? Why is there nothing on the new Community Gardens Project, which had people all over town growing their own gardens for the first time? Why is former Councilman Lou Pichinson's name left off the list of governing body members but no article published telling people about his recent resignation?

This summer, Highland Park lost two of our community's most active participants--Vickie White, former school board member and president of the Central Jersey People's Organization for Progress, and Harvey Brudner, former chair of the Highland Park Centennial Commission and president of the Joyce Kilmer Centennial Commission. Yet nowhere in the Quarterly is there even a word about these losses, not to mention a tribute to two very dedicated public servants.

Then we have the issue of the professional public relations firm, Jaffe Communications, whose owner was recruited to write and edit borough publications because at a meeting of the New Jersey State League of Municipalities, he expressed his admiration for the way Mayor Frank came to power. He has been paid $2,500 for each issue of the Quarterly and is also paid separately for coordinating the Main Street newsletter.

Well, if a person is going to be paid to write, he or she should at least know how to write and how to proofread. If the Fall 2009 issue of the Quarterly is any indication, Jaffe can do neither. Here are some examples of the errors he displays in the Quarterly:

1. On the top right corner of Page 1, a photo is captioned, "Borrough officials, residents, and students gathered recently at the Highland Park Recreation Complex to celebrate the opening of a new turf field." No comment needed here.

2. The misleading article attributing Rite Aid's renovation to redevelopment suddenly quotes someone named "Nolan" on page 2 without introducing him or providing any background on him. It should have noted he is a former councilman and former member of the Redevelopment Agency.

3. On page 5, in an article mentioning Highland Park being designated a Fair Trade Town, the bottom paragraph in the third column states, "Members of the middle and high school band, orchestra, and choral recently sold Fair Trade coffee, tea, and chocolate as a fundraiser." Choral? Choral what? Isn't the correct word "choir" or "chorus?"

4. On page 5, in an article on three businesses celebrating their first anniversary in town, the bottom paragraph on the left reads, "She said Main Street organizations bring added resources to downtowns, such as small business training that provides tools to small business owners on how to market their business, facade upgrades, and signs, all of which attract customers." This is a very poorly worded sentence and is missing the necessary comma after "small business training," as this should be an incidental phrase set off by commas. Also, resources don't "provides"; they provide. A competent writer should know something about subject-verb agreement.

5. Our Superintendent of Schools apparently needs some lessons in comma usage as well. She says, "At the high school our focus remains on enriching our current programs to meet the special needs of our young people." Where is the comma required after a prepositional phrase begins a sentence? The statement should read, "At the high school, our focus remains..."

The Superintendent then continues with a run-on sentence, apparently not caught by Jaffe, reading, "Our fall sports teams have begun practicing on the turf field and we look forward to watching them compete in the new facility." Any English 101 student will tell you that turf field should be followed by a comma in front of the conjunction "and" to make this a correct sentence.

The Board of Education president does no better. "On behalf of the entire School Board I invite the community, not just the school community but the entire community, to participate in the many activities going on at our schools." How about inviting the Board of Education to a workshop explaining the basic concept that a sentence beginning with a phrase such as "On behalf of the entire School Board" should be followed by a comma?

Yet our esteemed Board president manages to put a comma where it doesn't belong in this sentence: "And, I highly recommend being in communication with other parents." Maybe some of those parents could tell her that the "and" starting her sentence should not have a comma following it.

There are far too many such errors in the Board president's report to chronicle them all. Here is one more: "An inspiring number of our graduates attend some of the most prodigious colleges and universities in the country." Prodigious means large in size. The word the Board president probably intended, which Jaffe never corrected, is "prestigious."

6. On page 12, an article announcing the Junior Cadet Police Academy states an application deadline of October 23. The Quarterly came out on October 28. What's wrong here?

Some may argue that minor grammar mistakes are insignificant, but given the amount of money being spent on this paper and the fact that the bulk of the errors occur in the schools' section, this very well can be considered a legitimate concern.

But the worst of all are the politically biased statements and subtle promotion of particular candidates and businesses. A week before the gubernatorial election, Mayor Frank tries to sneak in a promotional for Governor Corzine with this statement in the article on road improvements: "With these extra funds, thanks to Governor Corzine and Steve Dilts, we can fix more of our roads and make Highland Park an even better place to live."

Well, Corzine has been in office for four years and Frank for nine, yet many of our roads and sidewalks are in terrible condition.

Then there is the "Heal the World" Mayor's Message, which once again repeats her self-proclaimed designation of Highland Park as "New Jersey's first green community." How ironic this is in a paper with repeated references to the installation of artificial turf at the Highland Park Recreation Complex. Artificial turf, or plastic grass, contains lead chromate and involves safety hazards to users from exposure. In June 2008, the New Jersey Department of Health shut down six synthetic fields due to high lead levels. Artificial turf has a base layer of crumb rubber infill, which is made from used tires and is considered hazardous waste in several states.

When confronted with the less than green reality of the artificial turf, Mayor Frank out and out lied by saying the county required its use in the grant funding the field restoration. County officials subsequently contacted by reporters denied that any such requirement was attached to the grant.

Is Highland Park New Jersey's first green community just because the mayor says so, even if other towns are doing much more to actively promote green living? Decide for yourself. Some advice: read the Highland Park Mirror's series at on Highland Park's artificial turf before making the decision.

Mayor Frank says "we are proud of our leadership." Does that mean she is proud of herself? "You can be good and green too," says her condescending, third-grade level mayor's message. How can we be good and green? The answer is by patronizing a set of listed businesses, all owned by Frank supporters.

Among those businesses is no less than Centerpiece, which the mayor herself owns. She says, "Some more favorites are gorgeous red, purple, blue, green, or yellow recycled glass salad bowls at Centerpiece..." What this means is the mayor is spending taxpayer dollars to promote her own business in the borough newsletter. Is this even legal? Even if the answer is yes, it most certainly is in poor taste.

Finally, the Quarterly is not, as is falsely stated on page 3, "Highland Park's official newspaper." A town's "official" newspaper is the one it designates by ordinance to publish all of its advertising. In our case, that would be The Home News Tribune. Calling a government newspaper by this legal term is misleading and just plain wrong.

This issue of the Quarterly would truly be a "comedy of errors" if only our hard-earned dollars weren't funding it.

Rite Aid Is Perfect Example of Why We DON'T Need Redevelopment

While the recession continues along with job losses and foreclosures, the borough continues to spend taxpayer dollars on disseminating its propaganda and lining the pockets of Mayor Frank's good friend and political supporter Jonathan Jaffe. Too bad that for all this money, the Fall 2009 Quarterly gets it all wrong on Rite Aid and redevelopment.

A front-page article discussing Rite Aid's recent facade improvement is titled, "Rite Aid is Perfect Example of Effect of Redevelopment." That title is a perfect example of political spin. The reality is that Rite Aid's renovation was done in spite of, not because of, the borough's controversial redevelopment plan.

The Rite Aid property was placed in the 2004 redevelopment plan against the wishes of the property owners. Plans for the site included construction of two condominium buildings on South Fourth Avenue along what is part of the Rite Aid parking lot.

According to the Quarterly article, Rite Aid expressed the desire to renovate its building as far back as the early 1990s. This is interesting. The Redevelopment Agency was not founded until 2004. That means the owners sought to renovate under the existing system and not through a redevelopment agency or process. Also, Rite Aid was not in the building in the early 1990s. At that time, the pharmacy was still Drug Fair, owned by the property owner who later sold the business to the chain.

So how can Rite Aid's improvements be traced back to the Redevelopment Agency if those desires were sought and pursued long before the agency came into existence?

It turns out that the borough's adoption of the redevelopment plan actually delayed Rite Aid's renovation. The property was designated as being in need of redevelopment, in other words, as blighted, against the will of the property owner. As the Quarterly itself noted, the owners had already expressed their desire to renovate. Why then was there a need to blight their property and make it vulnerable to a taking by eminent domain?

The renovations, which are a tremendous improvement, were done as the result of a court settlement. The issue was in court because the property owners contested being placed in "an area in need of redevelopment." Such a designation was unneeded since they had already committed to renovating the property. Yet the property owner had to spend money on lawyers and legal fees to fight the town on this designation, delaying the improvements by several years.

In the end, the renovations were agreed to as part of a settlement that took the Rite Aid property out of the redevelopment zone. The borough also made the concession of taking out the condominium requirement. Therefore, former Councilman Steve Nolan's claim that the Rite Aid renovation is "a good example of how redevelopment can spur private landowners to be full partners in our downtown" is false and highly misleading. Rite Aid's owners did not want to be in a redevelopment zone. Nolan is also wrong in describing the renovation as "the Rite Aid redevelopment project," as it was never a redevelopment project at all.

The owners' desire and subsequent follow through in renovating their property is direct proof that redevelopment is not needed to spur landowners to improve their properties. Instead, redevelopment, specifically being placed in a redevelopment zone, can be considered a form of blackmail--the threat of eminent domain being placed on a business to motivate that business to take action out of fear of losing their property altogether.

Redevelopment agencies eat up taxpayers' money with paid consultants and the hiring of architectural, legal, and planning firms, none of which are needed. In the five years that Highland Park's Redevelopment Agency has existed, not a single redevelopment project has been done. Yet the agency takes credit for renovations funded and completed by private business owners through their own motivation and at their own expense.

Once again, we see the proof that sensitive revitalization, which involves no Redevelopment Agency and no threat of eminent domain, is the right way to go in improving our downtown. Those of us who campaigned on this premise back in 2005 and 2007 are once again vindicated by the reality on the ground.

That is a real victory for both the people and businesses of this town.

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Eminent Domain Victory: It's Not Just for Long Branch

Property owners in the Marine Terrace, Ocean Terrace, and Seaview Avenue area (MTOTSA neighborhood) in Long Branch, NJ, where a major rally against eminent domain abuse was held in June 2006, are free at last. In a decisive and final victory, they have won the right to keep their homes and their neighborhoods.

In mid-September, the municipal government and the developer involved reached an agreement with the homeowners in which all eminent domain actions were formally withdrawn. The city will be barred from any future efforts to take these homes via eminent domain under any current or future redevelopment plan.

This was a long battle, and it is a major victory. This neighborhood of longtime residents who barbecue together and regularly spend time on one another's front porches has literally been through hell. Unfortunately, many senior citizens, including World War II veterans, who had lived there for decades did not live to see this day, having died fighting for the right to keep their homes.

Under the agreement, the city has also agreed to reimburse the homeowners for a portion of their attorneys' fees and provide the homeowners with the tax abatements that had originally been promised to the developer who had planned to tear down their homes and build expensive condominium complexes. Additionally, the developer has agreed to rebuild and/or repair abandoned homes that were initially purchased under the redevelopment plan.

The beginning of the end of Long Branch's redevelopment and eminent domain abuse came in August 2008, when a three-judge panel of the New Jersey Appellate Division unanimously reversed the horrendous 2006 decision of Superior Court Judge Lawrence Lawson, permitting condemnation of the properties. When the case was sent back to trial court, the city agreed to abandon its eminent domain actions and began negotiating a resolution of the matter with the affected homeowners.

The Long Branch case was one of the most publicized and prominent of the eminent domain abuse cases in New Jersey. That is why this victory goes far beyond Long Branch, why it is a victory for every homeowner and every business owner ever targeted by eminent domain for the purpose of economic redevelopment. As the 2008 decision was the beginning of the end for Long Branch's efforts, this victory is the beginning of the end of eminent domain abuse in New Jersey. And it is a shining example of how we the people can fight City Hall; not only can we fight, but we can win!

In the fight against eminent domain abuse, we still have quite a way to go. While 43 states have reformed their eminent domain laws in response to the 2005 Supreme Court Kelo decision, New Jersey's legislature has done absolutely nothing to protect home and property owners from this travesty. Legislative hearings on several bills were held; Governor Corzine's Public Advocate even actively advocated reform measures, yet nothing has been done. It is only in the state Supreme Courts that progress has been made to curtail the taking of homes and businesses for economic redevelopment.

Redevelopment may be dormant and for now, even dead in Highland Park, but make no mistake--our residents and business owners have very little legal protection should the governing body decide to revive redevelopment efforts. That is why we need to continue to lobby the state legislature for reform that protects all who want to keep their property the same way the Long Branch agreement protects the residents of one particular neighborhood.

The good news is, these battles can be won. Every victory along the way is a step toward the big victory. And every victory is a reminder that real power is not in City Hall, not in the State House, and certainly not with wealthy developers. Real power is within each one of us, and that is why, when this battle is finally over, we will prevail.