Minutes: July 19, 2021

The meeting was called to order at 7:13 PM by Chair Diane Wexler.

Diane then read the Statement of Compliance and led the commission in the pledge of allegiance and salute to the flag.

Roll call was taken for attendance - present were:

DIANE WEXLER, Chair
CATHERINA SAWOSZCZYK
CRAIG WILLIAMS, Vice Chair, Liaison to Land Use Board
MARGARET DISTASI

Absent was BONNIE TADRICK

Approval of General Meeting Minutes, June 21, 2021

A roll call was taken to approve the June 21, 2021 minutes. Catherina Sawoszczyk, Craig Williams, and Diane Wexler all voted to approve, with Peg Distasi abstaining, since she was not in attendance at the June meeting. The minutes were then officially approved.

PUBLIC PARTICIPATION SESSION (Agenda Items Only)

Diane Wexler initiated the first public participation session, on agenda items only. No one came forward at this time to comment, so Diane concluded this part of the proceedings.

LAND USE BOARD - LIAISON REPORT

Land Use Board Liaison Craig Williams stated that he was not in attendance at the Land Use Board meeting of July 14, 2021. Diane Wexler briefly summarized the status of a previous application under review, which involved the proposed installation of a garage with special height dimensions. She said the project was ultimately approved, although some modifications to the drainage plans were required.

APPLICATIONS UNDER REVIEW

LU# 7-21-6 Suez Water

Diane Wexler gave a brief overview of this application. She stated that Suez Water is looking to replace its temporary generators with more permanent fixtures in all five of its locations. Peg Distasi questioned whether the company was proposing to replace the temporary generators with larger units; Diane said that the project did not involve increasing the size of the generators. Craig Williams wondered if a permanent reservoir of propane fuel would be required as backup. Diane said that the project would be officially heard and reviewed at the next Land Use Board meeting, most likely in August.

OLD BUSINESS

Sustainable New Jersey

Diane Wexler said that, although Vernon Township remains a member of Sustainable New Jersey (SNJ), certain certifications had lapsed and needed to be reinstated. She mentioned that Craig Williams was already working on one of them. Peg Distasi asked if the township should try to move from bronze to silver status with SNJ. Diane indicated that this could be a possibility, suggesting that a number of the township’s existing projects and initiatives already meet SNJ certification/recertification criteria and should be highlighted in the reapplication process. Diane then asked for a written report from Peg Distasi summarizing her research on hybrid and electric vehicles and on charging stations, which could then be used as the basis for a meeting between the two of them, Vernon Township Business Administrator Charles Voelker, and Vernon Mayor Howard Burrell - enabling them to seriously discuss upgrades to the town’s fleet of cars from gasoline-powered to hybrid and/or electric (which, in turn, would merit significant points with SNJ). A brief discussion of the environmental and economic benefits of conversion, as well as a sketch of what this could look like in the township, ensued.

Peg Distasi asked who was going to be responsible for overseeing the application and submission process for SNJ certifications. Diane Wexler replied that she will be working with Vernon Recreation Director Mishelle Downtain to make this happen.

NRI (Natural Resource Inventory report)

Craig Williams said that there has not been a groundswell of changes to the inventory since the NRI report was last completed some time ago, but it would still cost Vernon Township considerable money if they attempted to do a thorough reassessment of its natural resources on their own, and not under the auspices of the Highlands Council (which would likely be less comprehensive and timely than the commission would like). Peg Distasi asked if there was a deadline for an NRI update - a critical piece of documentation that would allow for recertification and certification upgrades with Sustainable New Jersey - from SNJ. Diane Wexler replied that they had gotten an extension until December. Craig Williams cautioned that the NRI would likely not be completed or approved by then, with those SNJ certification points needing to be written off for the time being and made up elsewhere. He suggested that the commission proceed as follows in working to get the NRI updated: Approach the mayor and business administrator for a contact at the Highlands Council, as well as a timeline for bringing the report up to date and input about how the commission could best assist in this process. Diane then agreed to contact the Highlands Council directly to find out how the commission might be of service to them in making this happen.

Hybrid Cars/Electric

Peg Distasi briefly discussed her research into hybrid and electric vehicles for the town. She said that if Vernon Township wants to capitalize on the multitude of state government and Sustainable New Jersey grants currently available for such purposes, they will need to do so quickly, as these funds are often claimed and exhausted by October. Craig Williams asked for what kinds of programs these grants are typically earmarked. Peg replied that there are grants available for the installation of charging stations and purchasing of electric and hybrid vehicles for municipal police departments, with the grants for charging station infrastructure as the more popular and in-demand of the two. Diane Wexler stressed the imminent need to get working on securing these grants. Peg then stated for the record that the township does not have a point person on staff who could handle the grant-writing process. Craig suggested that he knows a Vernon resident with substantial, high-level technical grant-writing experience and a stable of grant writers in her employment - as well a history of working with Mayor Burrell on other grant application projects - whom he could approach on a project basis. Diane said that they could bring this person to the attention of the mayor and business administrator during their upcoming planned meeting with them, provided she is interested in doing the work at the current township pay rate. Peg Distasi proposed they ascertain her interest and invite her to the next environmental commission meeting to discuss the project should she be favorably inclined.

Charging Stations

Peg Distasi reiterated that grant money for charging station projects would be limited. Craig Williams also mentioned that Governor Murphy signed a law on July 9 that pushes municipalities to start investing more heavily in electric vehicles and charging infrastructure (with a statewide goal of having 330,000 light-duty electric vehicles in place by 2025 and all municipal light-duty fleets go electric by 2035). Peg suggested that - because of this new law - the township would no longer be able to delay the process of upgrading their stable of cars and would have to get moving on electrification.

Blue Community

Peg Distasi gave a brief overview of the Blue Community program to the commission. She said that Blue Community is a program out of Rutgers University that designates community water watchdogs to safeguard local water resources and promote the sustainable use of water in farming, fishing, food production, and agriculture. She mentioned that communities can apply to Blue Communities for the designation, via a short application form and a petition that township residents can sign and present to the town council to both demonstrate support and to use to request a Blue Community town resolution. Craig Williams suggested that there are several farm installations in the township that do organic or some sort of sustainable farming and might benefit from the association; Peg Distasi concurred, stating that it should not be difficult to get these farms to cooperate with measures that they already have in place. Diane Wexler proposed that they work any Blue Community designation into the township’s application for Sustainable New Jersey certification and requalification, along with updates to descriptions of the town’s recycling program, pollinator garden, hiking trails and walking paths, and sustainable food initiatives and vendors.

Catherina Sawoszczyk pointed out that one of Blue Community’s requirements is that the community must work to prohibit the sale of bottled water. Peg Distasi proposed that the stores in town could take advantage of this to sell local drinking water that is both sustainably procured and branded with the township logo. Catherina then mentioned that there is also a Blue Community stipulation that water must be managed and provided as a common resource and not monetized for private use and gain. A discussion then ensued about the amount of privately owned versus publicly derived water resources in the township, with a Vernon resident and member of the public - local real estate agent Sean Clarkin - offering input on water sources in the Barry Lakes and Highland Lakes regions as well. Catherina questioned how Vernon’s current mix of privately and publicly held water resources would affect the township’s ability to secure the Blue Community designation. Peg Distasi suggested that more research into the issue would be needed, but proposed that - if the commission were to go forward with an application - they could identify the area aquifers that feed into the town wells and septics as the common resource. Catherina mentioned that they might want to reach out to Blue Community and tap into available help from them; Peg suggested that the commission should first delve more deeply into the program to determine if and where Vernon would be a good fit for the Blue Community program, and then invite a representative to the September meeting to advise the commissioners on successfully completing the application process.

Solar Panels

Peg Distasi reported that she talked to Mayor Burrell about the possibility of placing solar panels over municipal parking and other town facilities. She said he was quite receptive to the idea. Diane Wexler mentioned that she had previously circulated important information about how doing something like this could save money on town electric costs in the long run. Peg said that she and Mayor Burrell also discussed how one solar panel installation at the municipal building could supply energy for the DPW and the town animal shelter as well. She took the opportunity to reiterate that there is grant money available for municipalities to do solar paneling projects for town facilities and other government properties. Peg concluded this line of discussion by stating she would continue working together with Diane to identify available grant opportunities for municipal solar paneling installations, as well as to gather information about the cost benefits that township might reap from them. Diane suggested that the commission start with proposals to cover town parking facilities and charging stations, using this as a stepping stone for additional municipal solar installations down the road. Peg and Diane agreed to reconvene separately over the next month to confer and to compile a report on their research.

A discussion then ensued about addressing and updating other matters of old business from prior months. Diane Wexler mentioned that she wanted to follow up with Tennessee Gas and Pipeline to obtain satisfactory answers to questions about the TGP compressor station project, ones that the commission posed in a previous letter with no success. Peg Distasi then took the opportunity to brief the commission on recent developments with three earlier orders of business or concern not on the meeting agenda: legal issues and litigation regarding the Silver Spruce illegal solid waste dump; problems with the cleanup, management, and revitalization of the trout stream on the ACME supermarket property; and recent findings of heavy metal contamination on a town center lot (the "Baldwin Property") that were not adequately brought to the commission’s or the DEP’s attention. Catherina Sawoszczyk asked if there were any developments in the proposed partnership with the Vernon Beautification Committee to rejuvenate and upgrade the town’s pollinator garden; Diane Wexler replied that the issue had been tabled until January 2022 because the town needs to select a new location for the garden - which is currently situated on Department of Education property that the township wishes to sell - and finalize plans to relocate it permanently.

NEW BUSINESS

No new business was submitted for discussion at this time.

PUBLIC PARTICIPATION SESSION (Any Vernon Environmental Issue)

Diane Wexler initiated the second public participation session, covering any environmental issue of interest to Vernon residents.

Vernon Township resident Sean Clarkin came forward at this time to suggest that the commission stay away from pitching electric cars to the township as primary pursuit vehicles, as he cautioned there would likely be substantial resistance from the police (because gasoline-powered cars currently can pick up speed and reach high rates of speed much more quickly). The commissioners concurred. Peg Distasi did note, however, that Ford is currently making an affordable and specialized police hybrid SUV-for which considerable grant money is available through the state-that addresses these concerns. Craig Williams suggested that the commissioners might want to stick to first presenting the idea of converting non-pursuit vehicles in the township’s fleet of cars, which might be an easier sell.

No one else came forward at this time to comment, so Diane Wexler then closed to the meeting to the public.

With no other business or comments offered, Craig Williams made a motion to adjourn the meeting. Catherina Sawoszczyk seconded the motion.

The meeting was adjourned at 8:53 PM.

Respectfully submitted by Leslie Boen, Recording Secretary