The public gallery at the Montclair Township Council’s June 21 meeting, the last meeting before the current council is re-inaugurated, was packed with residents, and one could be forgiven for thinking that the reason was one or both of two controversial issues on the agenda – rezoning part of Glenridge Avenue or the possible closing of the Our Lady of Mount Carmel Catholic parish church. In fact, it was an issue not even on the agenda. Most of the residents who attended were there to express support for having Fourth Ward Councilor Renée Baskerville appointed to the council’s Economic Development Committee (EDC) for the 2016-20 council.
One Fourth Ward resident after another got up to the lectern and spoke in Dr. Baskerville’s favor, citing her commitment to Fourth Ward issues and the need for someone in touch with the residents who understood the implications of the major redevelopment the ward faces, like the anticipated redevelopment of Lackawanna Plaza and the need to secure a grocery store for the property. Montclair NAACP Vice President Christine Samuels said there are many challenges ahead for Montclair, and the Fourth Ward in particular, and that Dr. Baskerville was the ideal candidate to ensure transparency and teamwork in economic development issues. Several others praised her for her attention to the South End and its business district.
Montclair Fourth Ward Councilor Renée Baskerville, whose suggested appointment to the council’s Economic Development Committee was strongly advocated by her constituents.
Dr. Baskerville thanked those who came out and spoke on her behalf, and she also praised Mayor Robert Jackson, Councilor-at-Large Rich McMahon, and Third Ward Councilor Sean Spiller for their service on the EDC and doing a good job. She expressed interest in serving on the committee because she thought she could provide a fresh perspective on development issues and her relationship with the people when she meets with developers.
“I can assure you that I will continue to have meetings and come to the community, come and find out what is the will of the residents,” she said. “It’s not enough to have a meeting with developers and decide things, and come after the fact with the shovels already in the ground.” She lamented that she was “not at the table in a timely matter” in earlier development projects, but she said she wishes to continue helping to keep the community involved.
Mayor Jackson sought to explain how he and the councilors are given committee assignments. The council, he said, assigned liaisons to advisory boards prior to the current council’s election. After the new council took over, five three-person committees having oversight over a number of related advisory boards; the committees were Economic Development, Services, Education Public Safety, and Finance, with the assignments decided mainly in executive sessions. The mayor said the current compositions of the committees have kept the council solid, and while several members had wanted different assignments, the council decided on June 14 in a nonbinding decision that maintaining the current compositions of the committees was the best way to go. The council cannot officially make new committee appointments before its re-inauguration on July 1. Mayor Jackson did leave open the possibility that Dr. Baskerville could be on the EDC, and he said he appreciated the residents’ input.
Ringwood Resident Says Montclair’s Water Source Near Superfund Site
A bombshell of a revelation came from Ringwood resident Doug Ruccinone, who alerted Montclair residents that the reservoir they depend on for water, which is in Ringwood, is near a Superfund site of toxic paint sludge dumped by the Ford Motor Company in the 1960s. Ruccinone noted that the site is only two miles from the reservoir, and part of the site could theoretically leak toxins into Montclair’s drinking water. Although the Environmental Protection Agency recommended removing the toxic soil, the borough of Ringwood would prefer to cap the toxic waste – which amounts to four times the amount of waste found in the Love Canal in upstate New York – to build, ironically, a recycling center. The EPA says this less costly option is an acceptable one, but Ringwood residents don’t trust the borough government due to the fact that the site has been listed, delisted, and then listed again by the EPA as a Superfund site because the first cleanup attempt wasn’t effective. Ruccinone asked Montclair to pass a resolution to back Ringwood residents in their bid to get the site cleaned up.
Deputy Mayor Robert Russo noted an e-mail Ruccinone had sent him noting pressure from Ford not to pursue the cleanup that the EPA says it’s willing to do, and Ruccinone added at the meeting that Ford “has [its] foot on our borough’s neck.” He added that the price for a complete cleanup is reasonable, and, “if it is handled properly, the true perpetrators will need pay for it, which is Ford.”
“You gave me a lot to think about,” Deputy Mayor Russo, a Ford owner, said. “I’m thinking about what car to buy now.” Ruccinone promised to send more information to the council.
Council Passes Resolution To Support OLMC Church
Parishioners of Our Lady of Mount Carmel Roman Catholic Church advocated for the township to help preserve its predominately Italian-American parish, and the council passed, 7-0, a resolution supporting the congregation’s efforts to prevent the church’s closing. Deputy Mayor Russo, a Catholic and an Italian-American, conceded that the Vatican makes decisions in an undemocratic way, but he was happy to join Dr. Baskerville, who read the resolution with great enthusiasm, in supporting the item. Dr. Baskerville later suggested that the parish could start a community center as a possible way to supplement and strengthen the parish’s role in the area around Pine Street.
Public comment and concerns voiced about Our Lady of Mount Carmel lasted over an hour, frustrating property owners who expected to be heard on the Glenridge Avenue zoning ordinance and also anticipated a long, drawn-out process. Planning Director Janice Talley simplified things for them, listing the properties that owners wanted removed from the C-3 district, noting that most of the properties cannot be altered anyway due to lack of on-site parking. The properties are the former Diva Lounge, several storefronts on Lackawanna Plaza, and the Hinck Building’s movie theater. Real estate owner Dick Grabowsky, who owns the Hinck Building, got what he wanted in terms of getting his property taken out of the zoning district, but he remained opposed to the 37-foot height requirement, saying it was difficult for a developer to take down an old structure and put up a three-story building that could be economically viable. The resolution passed 7-0 with the aforementioned properties but with the height restrictions intact.
The council also heard from people such as Maureen O’Connor, who organized the recent Glenridge Avenue street fair, and Merwin Kinkade of Studio Montclair, who thanked Kensington for showing its community spirit by helping to fund the arts in town. Israel Cronk of the Montclair Business Improvement District endorsed the proposal by Kensington to build its assisted living facility at Church Street to bring more vitality and diversity into Montclair Center.
The council passed a resolution directing the Traffic Parking and Advisory Committee to alternate regularly scheduled meetings between morning and evening start times to allow people to attend evening meetings, when they are likely free. Councilor McMahon said that earlier attempts to have evening meetings met with little success in drawing people to them, and in many cases there was an absence of a quorum among committee members. The council passed it 6-1 over Councilor MacMahon’s own negative vote.
Deputy Mayor Russo announced he would be stepping down from his duties as deputy mayor and would serve as a councilor-at-large in the next council term owing to personal obligations.