New Meeting Needed for Master Plan Revision
Somehow, I don't think lack of interest or apathy is the problem. More likely, the borough's perennial lack of publicity for important events is at work again. Legally, the Planning Board fulfilled the minimum requirements to provide advance notice of its meeting to the public, with advertisements in the Home News Tribune and Star Ledger and a notice on the wall at Borough Hall.
But being open and transparent means doing more than the bare minimum required by law. Newspaper notices are written in their legal sections in very small letters and easily missed. Why didn't the Planning Board issue a press release to these papers, which would have gone into their community sections and reached far more people?
The borough just published its fall edition of the Quarterly. Why was there no article summarizing the proposed Master Plan revision and stating that a meeting on the revision would be held on November 19 at Borough Hall? Why did the borough never put notice of the Master Plan revision or this meeting--and a copy of the draft revision--on its web site? Are these things so difficult to do, or is it just that no one bothered? Or, given the large crowds that attended the meetings on the redevelopment plan, was publicity deliberately kept to a minimum so the administration could quietly amend our Master Plan with no one aware of what is being done until it is already a done deal?
Furthermore, the November 19 meeting was held within a week of the Thanksgiving holiday, a time when people are either planning vacations or family events and not paying as much attention to public affairs. That alone makes this date a poor choice, and the same applies to December 17. What is worse is the Planning Board's denial of a citizen's request for a second meeting to allow more time for public input and comments.
Copies of the Master Plan revision are available from the Borough Clerk. While borough officials refused to provide a digital version of the document, the citizen who attended the meeting did that work on his own, taking the time and effort to scan it into a Word document. That document is now posted on the Files page of my Friends of Laurel newsletter at http://groups.yahoo.com/group/friends-of-laurel/files/ under the name Reexam of MasterPlan.doc. Unfortunately, Yahoo does not allow access to the files for those who are not subscribers to the newsletter. I have a copy of the Word document that I am happy to email to anyone who cannot access it via Yahoo. Just email me at email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org and ask for a copy of the 2009 Master Plan revision.
Unfortunately, anyone who wants input into this document outlining the direction of development in our town is going to have to act quickly. According to the Planning Board chair, written public comments may be sent to the Planning Board at Borough Hall, but must arrive by the deadline of Monday, December 7.
For many people, reading the long document and writing comments will compete with shopping and holiday preparations. This is why we need a second meeting Planning Board meeting to solicit public input after giving citizens the time to read and absorb the whole document. I implore the Planning Board to reconsider its decision, hold a public session at its December 17 meeting--at which the Board is now scheduled to vote on adopting the document--and postpone the vote until its January meeting. What harm can possibly come from a one-month delay whose sole purpose is to make our government more open and transparent? If the mayor can postpone her resignation by nearly a year, certainly the Planning Board can postpone its vote for one month.
The borough knows how to do publicity when the mayor and council want it done. Not providing adequate publicity and advance knowledge about something as serious as the future of our town, in a document reviewed only once every seven years, is a tremendous disservice to every resident in the borough. Rushing to adopt a plan in a manner that cannot help but appear arranged to minimize public participation is a slap in the face to every business and resident of Highland Park.
The timing of this rushed process cannot help but raise questions. Mayor Frank, who announced her resignation in February, has still not resigned. Is this rush through of the Master Plan revision an attempt by a lame duck mayor to impose her vision on the town one last time as a parting gift?
Don't forget that the previous Master Plan revision is the one that selectively stated certain businesses don't belong in the downtown, the one that called for riverfront residential development on the Y property and townhouses on part of the Rite Aid property, the one that advocated formation of the BID and Redevelopment Agency, the one that allowed a change of zoning to permit four-story buildings on Raritan Avenue.
The Master Plan and any proposed revision is of major importance. All who can should obtain a copy, review it, and mail comments to the Planning Board at Borough Hall. In your comments, please add the request for an additional meeting so people can comment in person. Those who attend the December 17 meeting should repeat the request, as it is never too late for the Planning Board to hear the voice of the people and change its mind.
Is our government open and transparent? Saying so does not make it so. There is no point in talking the talk if we don't walk the walk. Where and how development occurs in Highland Park should be the decision of the people, not of a tiny group in a closed-door process.
Zoning laws are informed by the Master Plan. No one should be under any illusion that adoption of a Master Plan revision will not have a real, on-the-ground impact.