Minutes: May 17, 2021
The meeting was called to order at 7:05 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
CRAIG WILLIAMS, Vice Chair, Liaison to Land Use Board
Approval of April 19, 2021 Minutes:
There were no minutes to approve, as the recording secretary, Deb Coulson, resigned prior to this meeting.
Discussion of Hiring a New Recording Secretary:
Diane Wexler submitted the name of Leslie Boen as someone who could assume the position without attending the meetings, and someone who would do the job exclusively from the recordings for the going rate of $15 per hour. She mentioned that the commissioners had all received Leslie’s resume via email. Diane then asked for a motion to nominate Leslie for the position. Peg Distasi objected, stating that the commissioners would not be permitted to vote on an item of business that was not on the agenda, and contended that the position had not been advertised to the public. Diane said that she had spoken to Mayor Burrell’s office about this situation earlier in the day, and she was advised that the commission could handle this any way they deemed appropriate. Diane then acknowledged Peg’s objection.
Citing the urgent need to hire a recording secretary, Diane then again asked for a motion to approve Leslie for the position. She maintained that Leslie would cost the commission less money than the previous recording secretary. Peg Distasi asked why this was the case. Diane replied that Leslie would not be attending the meetings, and would be working from the recordings only, as was the standard procedure for the Land Use Board.
Bonnie Tadrick made the motion to approve. Craig Williams seconded the motion - cautioning, however, that he took Peg’s comments seriously. Diane recognized Craig’s concerns, stating that she, as chair of the commission, would be held responsible for any mistakes made during this process. Diane also said that these points would be duly noted and reflected in the minutes.
Catherina Sawoszczyk asked if the decision could be reversed if a better option came along. Diane replied yes, the commission could opt to change it then.
Craig Williams requested that they open up the floor to a fuller discussion of the issue. Diane agreed. Craig began by mentioning that the prior recording secretary was paid both to attend meetings and then to transcribe the minutes of the meetings, but stressed that there were a number of occasions in which the proceedings were recorded out of chronological order and the minutes needed to be reviewed by the commissioners before they could be presented for approval at a meeting. Craig maintained that this was not an ideal situation. He also pointed out that the services of the previous secretary typically approached the commission’s budgetary limits, and that the commissioners should keep these things in mind when taking a vote.
Catherina Sawoszczyk inquired as to whether this vote was intended to approve a contractual hire for an ongoing basis. She said there may be stipulations in the by-laws that prohibit this without following certain rules, regulations and procedures. Craig Williams cautioned there may be pushback if a permanent hire is carried out in this manner. Catherina then proposed that securing Leslie on a temporary basis for the transcription work - allowing her to compile the April and May minutes - while including her in the more formalized township hiring process for the permanent position might be the most prudent solution. Craig Williams, Bonnie Tadrick, and Peg Distasi all concurred. Diane Wexler then agreed.
Peg Distasi articulated the possible steps through which a new recording secretary could be hired, suggesting that they could vote at this meeting to employ Leslie to do the April and May minutes, and then add to next month’s meeting agenda a vote on the permanent hire. Craig Williams also proposed that they advertise the position in the interim. Diane Wexler reiterated and summarized everybody’s points, clarifying that the vote at this meeting would simply be for Leslie to do the April and May minutes, while initiating the township’s official hiring procedures and adding the vote on a permanent recording secretary to next month’s meeting agenda. All again agreed informally to this approach.
Diane Wexler then initiated the roll call to approve the interim measure. Diane Wexler, Bonnie Tadrick, Catherina Sawoszczyk, Craig Williams, and Peg Distasi all voted yes to approve the motion on the temporary agreement.
Diane Wexler initiated the first public participation session, on agenda items only. Peg Distasi made a motion to open up the meeting to public participation on agenda items. Craig Williams seconded the motion. No-one came forward at this time to comment, so Craig proposed to close the meeting to the public. Diane then concluded this part of the proceedings.
LAND USE BOARD LIAISON REPORT:
Craig Williams said the Land Use Board held two meetings between April and May. He stated that the April 28 meeting included discussion of a Snowshoe Homes application, a variance for a single-family home at the very top of the Mountain Creek residential area. He said that the proposal was unique in that the plot in question was slated to have three front yards, a rear yard, and no side yard, due to the fact that the builders were planning to construct the home at a horseshoe in the road. Craig also pointed out that the land was very steeply graded, with rock outcroppings, consistent with the edge of the mountain. According to Craig, there were no plans to include a private well on the lot, and the house’s sewer provisions were attached to the MUA. He mentioned a stipulation that the home could only be located in a very precise spot, and the proposal did not allow for any sort of wiggle room to move the building even slightly in one direction or the other. Craig said that the only potential wrinkle in the process had to do with the elevation and slant of the driveway and its intersection with the road, and that drainage issues were handled on site. He stated that no-one was expected to come forward with concerns or public comment, as there are currently no adjoining property owners, so the application was approved unanimously.
Craig next turned his attention to another application discussed at the April 28 meeting, a proposal from Claude Allain and Elizabeth Bilomauser to upgrade an existing town structure for the purposes of creating and installing a Thai restaurant. He said he believes the property is located at the corner of Church Street and Omega Drive. Craig stated the restaurant would be a two-story structure with water and sewer connected to the MUA, so there was no environmental impact to consider with regard to those provisions. He mentioned that there was some discussion of the size of the owners’ proposed signage, as well their plans for lighting, with potential environmental concerns over possible light overshoot of their property. Craig advised that Board Engineer Cory Stoner was carefully reviewing this aspect of the proposal, making sure that this would not end up as a problem down the road. He said the application was approved.
Craig then moved along to key takeaways from the May 12 Land Use Board meeting, which primarily focused on an application for a lot-line adjustment in a suburb of Highland Lakes. He said that the proposal involved two adjoining lots owned by the same person. Craig stated the owner was seeking to move the lot line 20 feet, to increase the frontage of the one property from 80 feet to 100 feet and shorten up the other, which was wider than it needed to be. According to Craig, the rationale given for the project was that the owner wanted to bring a non-conforming lot into compliance with minimum lot width requirements, allowing him to sell without issue. He commented further that there are no environmental concerns with the project.
APPLICATIONS UNDER REVIEW:
VERNON PROPERTY LLC
Craig Williams said that this project has not yet been reviewed but will be in an upcoming meeting. He said that he did not have the ability to share the application via Zoom. Craig then briefly synopsized the proposal, stating that the owner wants to convert a building that once housed a post office and hair salon into a town center-friendly structure, with plans to accommodate a convenience store and a gas station.
Craig then asked if the other commissioners had access to these plans. Peg Distasi replied that she thought she had received them a couple of Environmental Commission meetings prior. Diane Wexler concurred, saying she thought she had them earlier as well.
Craig said that the proposal called for two electric charging stations to be installed at the new gas station, making them some of the first such facilities to be established in Vernon Township. He noted, however, that he was not sure about how payments to use the charging stations would be arranged. Craig said one Vernon resident had previously raised concerns over the project, objecting to the addition of another gas station without incorporating significant charging station capacity, but it appeared to those concerns had been adequately addressed through these plans.
Craig maintained that the proposal was well-constructed. He said that the lighting plan was sound, with the lighting largely staying within the bounds of the development. Craig stated that the plans call for 2 two-bedroom apartments to be constructed on the top floor of the building, and that they are compliant with the criteria for the appearance of town-center facades. He mentioned that the building would be tied into the MUA and town water facilities, and that stormwater calculations appeared to be complete, with no runoff projected to leave the boundaries of the installation. Craig said that there might be some remaining environmental concerns, but he believes the application will ultimately be approved.
Peg Distasi then asked if there was going to be an expense to the township to run a line extension from the MUA and/or town water to the new development. Craig quickly reviewed the application and noted that there was a proposal for a sanitary line that did not yet appear to exist --and mentions of a water line that does. Peg then questioned whether the township would be on the hook for the extension of the MUA line or if the costs would fall on the developer. Craig said he did not know for sure; the application did not specify one way or the other, but that such a line would be costly. Peg wondered if this issue should be raised at the next Land Use Board meeting. Craig replied yes, but surmised that the developer would be at least partially responsible for the expense since they would be the ones using the new sanitary line. He mentioned that the new sanitary line extension would pass by many lots, potentially benefitting those property owners as well, but stressed that this developer would be one of the first and most immediate beneficiaries. Peg stated that it was important to fully understand the expenses associated with running this sanitary line and how the township was going to pay for that. Craig assured Peg that he would bring up the issue of sanitary line extension costs-and who will be responsible for them--at the next Land Use Board meeting.
Diane Wexler advised that the next Land Use Board meeting will take place in person, in June.
Peg reiterated that there are still a lot of questions about responsibility for costs that need to be answered before this project can and should proceed, because the township is not in a position to afford such an expense right now.
Craig concluded by asking if anyone had additional questions about this project. He said that there was an addition of a drive-through to the convenience store included in the plans, but it was otherwise a straightforward, typical refurbishment of an existing commercial property. Craig said that the differences in grading would be minimal, allowing for soil conservation, and there would be some fencing required, but he didn’t think that would pose a major problem.
Peg Distasi asked if there was still only going to be one entryway into the complex. Craig replied that all those involved agreed they didn’t want another speed entry on Route 515.
EARTH DAY TREE GIVEAWAY:
Diane Wexler remarked that, between Peg and Catherina on Saturday (April 24) and Craig and her on Sunday (April 25), the commission managed to go through almost its entire supply of trees at the Vernon Township Earth Day Tree Giveaway. Peg Distasi pronounced the event a huge success. She said that people in attendance were looking forward to the commission returning next year.
TROUT STREAM CLEAN-UP:
Peg Distasi briefly outlined recent developments with the trout stream clean-up and area landscape proposal. She said the last she heard the landscape proposal designers (led by the owner of the adjacent shopping center property) were working with the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) on the project, but the initiative was jeopardized by the MUA’s refusal to reduce their EDU fees to the shopping center. According to Peg, the owner had clearly stated that if those fees were not reduced, they may not even be able to maintain the shopping center-especially since Acme was threatening to vacate-let alone undertake a project like this. She said the plan was therefore in a holding pattern.
Diane Wexler said that she had contacted Vernon Township Board Administrator Charles Voelker via email, alerting him that the commission was working on ideas that would help the township convert some of their fleet of cars to hybrid or electric. Diane said that Mr. Voelker seemed excited about the prospect; he said he wanted to see the commission’s research and promised to get the information to the right people. Peg Distasi asked if one of her colleagues on the commission would work with her to put together a report and an in-person presentation on the body of research she has developed. Craig Williams agreed to partner with her on this. Diane advised that the two of them could make their presentation directly to Mr. Voelker, since he had already pledged to disseminate the research material to the key town authorities involved.
Craig mentioned that he had already spoken to Mr. Voelker about this issue face to face, and told him at that point about potential grant money and offsets that could make the idea of converting parts of the fleet to electric or hybrid even more viable. According to Craig, Mr. Voelker said they were not looking to turn over any of the township vehicles at this point in time, rendering this much more of a prospect for the not-so-immediate future. Diane suggested that a presentation to Mr. Voelker would still be worthwhile, giving him information and knowledge he will need down the road. Catherina Sawoszczyk agreed, saying that the presentation would help Mr. Voelker prepare for the eventuality of switching the fleet over to hybrid or electric cars-something that other municipalities are already in the process of doing.
Peg Distasi said that she felt the commission should be strongly encouraging the township to install two charging stations at the municipal building. Diane Wexler then mentioned that, on May 25, the Association of New Jersey Environmental Commissions (ANJEC) was scheduled to hold a Zoom webinar focusing precisely on how to develop electric vehicle charging infrastructure in your town. She then asked Peg to register, pointing out that the webinar was free to all ANJEC members. Peg replied that she believed she had already registered for the event. Diane said that attending the webinar might be a good first step towards starting the process of getting a couple of charging stations for town use, by Vernon residents.
Peg remarked that there are also plenty of grants out there to support the development of electric charging infrastructure, potentially reducing the cost of implementation to zero. She said that New Jersey is really gearing up for the greening and electrification of the transportation sector, with a considerable sum of money dedicated to completing this transition by 2035-not too far in the future.
TOWN-WIDE CLEANUP DAY:
Peg Distasi gave her impressions of Vernon’s very first town-wide cleanup day on May 1. Driving around, she said that the streets appeared to be in decent shape, but wasn’t sure if people actually got out deliberately to clean up as part of the organized event. She suggested that because the event is so new - and was only advertised a week or two before taking place - that perhaps not a lot of people knew about it. Peg reasoned that it may take a couple of years for the town-wide cleanup day to become a well-established, well-attended event in the community, but contended that next year the commission should start advertising and promoting it earlier - running ads, articles, public service announcements, and other notices in the local newspaper in plenty of time for it to register with people. She said that this year’s event, however, was a good start.
Craig Williams recommended that the commission reach out to the different lake community associations in the township to make them aware of these new annual cleanup efforts. Peg Distasi cautioned that Saturday is not the best day to schedule cleanup day, because a lot of people are at the field with their kids for various sports, and proposed that Sunday might ultimately be a better option. Catherina Sawoszczyk suggested that the commission join forces with the Wallkill Valley National Wildlife Refuge to focus efforts on heavily trafficked Route 565-badly in need of some attention-while Diane Wexler proposed getting the Boy Scouts involved to help with the cleanup.
Peg Distasi asked the commission to make a note to add this event to the agenda for January, as a reminder to start work on organizing and promoting the 2022 town-wide cleanup day.
TOWNSHIP COALITION BETWEEN EC/GREENWAY & BEAUTIFICATION:
Diane Wexler mentioned that launching something like a town-wide cleanup would be so much easier if the Environmental Commission were able to forge a three-way coalition with the Greenway and Beautification Committees - as was proposed at the previous meeting. To get the ball rolling, Diane said that she previously spoke with longtime Beautification Committee member Mary Ellen Vichiconti, who promised to talk to her fellow committee members about the idea. Diane promised she would follow up by identifying and contacting, via email, key people for the coalition. She then asked Craig Williams if he were still on the Greenway Committee; Craig replied yes.
Craig Williams then mentioned reviving a stream clearing initiative with which he was involved as a member of a now-defunct Friends of Vernon group, allowing for a more robust flatwater kayaking program in Vernon’s waterways - and increased recreational opportunities that bring people and money to the area. Peg Distasi said this would be an excellent collaborative project for the Environmental Commission and the Greenway Committee-and possibly even the Beautification Committee-to undertake, and proposed they add this as a new agenda item to work on, timing it so that the stream clearing program will be up, running, and revived for next year.
Catherina Sawoszczyk said that she felt the project would ultimately help Vernon Township attract more visitors, would boost the profile of the area, was not cost-prohibitive, and would not involve creating something entirely new. Craig concurred, stating that the program would merely enhance what Vernon Township already has at its disposal by making it more accessible and usable. He suggested that the stream clearing initiative could have a real and tangible economic impact in the area, with hotels, bed and breakfasts, and resorts in particular benefitting from augmented flatwater kayaking opportunities nearby. Diane Wexler said they could print out informational materials and maps of the stream locations once they were cleared out and then distribute them to local B&Bs. Peg suggested that they publicize these efforts as a headline attraction on Vernon Township’s Environmental Commission web page. She then concluded by proposing to place the project on the agenda for January as well. Diane made a note to do so.
Peg Distasi gave a brief overview of the Blue Community program. She said that the initiative is designed to help people best protect the quality of their water, with the possibility of having their towns receive “blue community” designations by taking certain specific measures to ensure their water supply remains clean, clear, and healthy. Peg mentioned she had previously sent around an article about the program, which also detailed the steps that towns can take to become blue communities. She said she thought this initiative was something the commission should put on the agenda, allowing them to review informational materials for any potential actions Vernon Township might want to undertake, and for action items that the commission might want to encourage.
Peg Distasi said that she just sent around an additional three emails on the Blue Communities initiative to the remainder of her fellow commissioners. Diane thanked Peg for the information and agreed to put review of the Blue Communities program on the agenda for the next meeting.
Diane Wexler concluded the commission’s new business by discussing an item of housekeeping that needed to be addressed. Diane mentioned that Vernon’s sustainable certification had lapsed, largely due to the renewal notices going to former Environmental Commission members. She said that she was meeting with representatives from Sustainable New Jersey the next day to see what needed to be done to renew the certification for the upcoming year. Diane said this will be discussed again next month as well.
PUBLIC PARTICIPATION (Any Environmental Item Concerning Vernon):
Jessi Palladini read a letter she compiled about the DPW dump site into the record. In the letter, she posed the following questions that she maintains have not been properly answered or addressed by the township:
- Why is the township not required to remove all road grit and dispose of it properly, in accordance with state laws and regulations?
- Why has there not been any exploratory digging on the western side of the dump, where solid waste was protruding from the side of the mountain, where the oil tank was located, and where other solid waste was found?
- Why was there no analytical testing done? Digging was done at random locations. Why was it not done in locations where there was buried solid waste?
- What about wetlands encroachment? Approximately 120 feet of material dumped in the stream needs to be pulled out of the wetlands area.
- Why were the excavation and test pits not done at the location where the solid waste was originally found?
- Why was the removal of oil tanks and other solid waste not supervised by a DEP official? Why were there no analytics done of this?
- What will happen with to the decades-old street sweepings, asphalt, and other solid waste illegally dumped and left at the DPW site without DEP approval or DEP permit and exemption?
Jessi strongly disputed the township’s prior assertion that these issues have been properly rectified. She said she hoped the Environmental Commission would take a critical look at the DPW dump site and not take the township’s take on the situation at face value.
Diane Wexler agreed to forward these questions to the township.
Upon the conclusion of Jessi’s remarks, no-one else came forward to comment. Diane Wexler then closed the meeting to the public.
Diane Wexler asked the other commissioners how they felt about meeting in person. Craig Williams, Peg Distasi, and Bonnie Tadrick all indicated they liked the idea. Catherina Sawoszczyk said that it didn’t matter to her either way. Diane then asked the commissioners to plan on attending the next meeting in person.
Craig Williams pointed out that the Greenway Action Advisory Committee was advertising its upcoming June 1 meeting as a Zoom and in-person hybrid. As chair of this advisory committee, Craig said he plans to create a Zoom meeting for those who are unable to physically attend, as well as providing the space for in-person attendance. Diane Wexler suggested she would be willing to learn from Craig as he navigates this new hybrid meeting model. Peg Distasi said she feels this is a good set-up, embracing the best of both worlds. Craig indicated that securing appropriate laptop camera equipment remained problematic-and there were still some potential issues with sharing cleanly and effectively via Zoom the kinds of visuals he uses-but that he felt with time these wrinkles could be ironed out. He maintained that this hybrid system is the best way to get us where we need to go.
Peg Distasi thanked the other commissioners for being so open to her ideas and suggestions. She encouraged the commission to move forward and get Vernon listed as “a very strong environmental community.”
Catherina Sawoszczyk indicated that she wants to expand beyond the annual township clean-up day and do more events in the community with the Environmental Commission. She said she looks forward to the Environmental Committee meeting again in person.
Bonnie Tadrick also suggested that she was happy about meeting again in person. She said that she thinks the commission is going in great directions and has a lot of exciting things planned for the future.
Diane Wexler promised she would do her due diligence and place the ad for the recording secretary in the newspaper and get everything on the agenda for next month’s meeting. She also said she would incorporate Jessi Palladini’s questions into a letter to the township, making sure she got the letter to the right people so the concerns could be adequately addressed.
Craig Williams made a motion to adjourn the meeting. Catherina Sawoszczyk seconded the motion.
The meeting was adjourned at 8:08 PM.