Planning Board delves into master plan update goals

WEST ORANGE, NJ — The West Orange Planning Board unanimously voted to initiate the process for developing an updated township master plan at its March 1 meeting.

The New Jersey legislature requires municipalities to re-examine their master plans every 10 years, which means West Orange’s revision is not due until 2020. But Chairman Robert Bagoff said that with so much going on around town — from the progress made on the Edison Village project to the start of the Harvard Press project to the renewed interest people are showing for the township as a whole — the Planning Board felt the time was right to create a unified vision that can guide all future development.

“There’s got to be an overall picture that is up-to-date, a sign of the times and a path to the future,” Bagoff told the West Orange Chronicle in a March 6 phone interview. “We’re not going to get every last thing done. However, we want to get as much as possible done and give to those who will come after us a guide as to what we saw, what were the tools available to us and how can we move forward.”

The updated master plan will include all the changes that have occurred in town since the last plan revision was issued in 2010, and feature the board’s recommendations for what it would like to see in West Orange in the years ahead.

But before those recommendations are made, Bagoff said it is vital that the Planning Board gets the input of various township stakeholders, including the Downtown West Orange Alliance and the West Orange Police Department. The chairman added that the board wants to hear from residents of all ages, from senior citizens to current students, who may someday return to settle here. West Orange consists of a rare amalgamation of every type of person a town could have, he said, so the board will seek to meld many suggestions into a plan acceptable to all.

To obtain this necessary insight, Bagoff said he will organize a subcommittee that will send out questionnaires to stakeholder groups. After that, he said these groups will be invited to share their ideas during board meetings. That way, he said, the board can learn exactly what the community wants and the public can be part of the process. And by listening to all that the stakeholders say about the town, he said all involved will see what West Orange has to offer.

“They don’t know that we have bike paths and walking paths and the zoo and the reservoir and the Edison Battery plant and so many other things,” Bagoff said, adding that Main Street alone has numerous shops and restaurants people often overlook. “There’s so much good stuff that happens right here in town that we can take advantage of.”

As that feedback is gathered, Bagoff said the board will openly discuss how different ideas can be included in the master plan, with the public having the chance to weigh in as well. At the same time, he said acting township planner Paul Grygiel and a yet-to-be-determined planning firm will aid board members in compiling the information into a plan that includes a hierarchy of what can be accomplished now and what can be done in the future.

“Not everything is doable instantaneously,” Bagoff said. “Some things do take time.”

Once that is done and the plan has been reviewed by all stakeholders, Bagoff said the board will vote to approve the plan. After that, he said, the West Orange Township Council will vote to accept either all or some of the updated master plan.

That vote will not happen any time soon, though. Bagoff said the board still must hire a planning firm to help the board plot a timetable for the master plan process. Until that happens, the chairman said he will not know when the master plan update will likely be completed.

Since the process is at such an early stage, Bagoff said his own ideas for plan recommendations are not ready to be shared yet, adding that they need to be fleshed out more. But he acknowledged that the board should have plenty to discuss in the coming months, and listed historic preservation as one example.

Other Planning Board members also have ideas for what the master plan should include. Board member and Councilwoman Susan McCartney told the West Orange Chronicle she would like to see sustainability measures, such as electric charging stations, recommended in the plan. McCartney said she also would like the plan to suggest ways of allowing businesses to easily become green.

Board member Jerry Eben wants the master plan update to emphasize the need for increased zoning enforcement, saying that he feels property owners who do not comply with the board’s conditions of approval are not being held accountable. Eben said West Orange could look a whole lot better if more people were taken to court for violations.

Mayor Robert Parisi previously told the Chronicle that the township is satisfied with its zoning enforcement.

Hiring a full-time planner to manage the township’s planning and development department would certainly help improve zoning enforcement in town, Eben said, which is why he wants the master plan to make that recommendation as well. The board member said he has a lot of respect for Grygiel, but a part-time consultant simply cannot do as much as a full-time employee could. And while it might cost the township more, he said the resulting benefits will be worthwhile.

“If you’re going to pay for less, you’re going to get less,” Eben told the Chronicle in a March 3 phone interview, adding that a full-time planner would serve as an adviser to the mayor and council. “You can’t be an ostrich and put your head in the ground. You’ve got to understand the problem and solve the problem. And that’s what a planner does.”

The Planning Board members are not the only ones with opinions about the master plan update. During the March 1 meeting several residents shared ideas they hope board members will consider. They included Rosary Morelli, who told the Chronicle she agreed with Eben that West Orange is in dire need of a full-time planner. Having one would allow the township to become proactive rather than reactive in pursuing street safety measures, Morelli said.

As a senior citizens advocate, Morelli thinks traffic safety is indeed something that should be a big part of the master plan. She said it is too dangerous for seniors to walk to the Orange Reservoir because Northfield Avenue has no sidewalks. She said sidewalks on that street should be recommended in the plan, as should a traffic study to determine other necessary safety measures.

Above all, Morelli thinks the board members should thoroughly research the concept of aging in place in devising their recommendations, saying this will likely be a big issue in the years ahead.

“The baby boomers are (becoming) senior citizens, and you’re going to have a larger population that is going to have needs,” Morelli said in a March 3 phone interview. “It’s really critical that they get it right.”

Roz Moskovitz Bielski also shared her concerns about traffic safety measures with the Planning Board. As president of the Pleasant Valley Civic Association in addition to serving on the township’s Pedestrian Safety Advisory Board, Bielski told the Chronicle she does not think anything has happened to stop speeding on Pleasant Valley Way in the more than two years since the PSAB was formed. She said she is equally frustrated that nothing has been done with the Rutgers University Complete Streets concept plan that was produced for the PSAB free of charge more than a year ago.

If Bielski had her way, she said she would have the master plan recommend reducing speed limits, increasing speed enforcement, adding crosswalks, expanding lighting and educating pedestrians. Of course, nothing can be done to a county road — which make up most of West Orange’s major streets — without Essex County’s approval. That is why she feels the plan should also stress the need to have frequent stakeholder meetings with county officials.

“We are not reinventing the wheel — Vision Zero exists and is successful,” Bielski said in a March 2 phone interview, referring to the concept of making roads safer, no matter the cost, to ensure there are no traffic fatalities. “Unless we get everybody at the same table, we’re going to keep spinning our wheels.”

Councilman Jerry Guarino disagrees that nothing has been done to further Complete Streets in West Orange, telling the Chronicle that the township is working with the county and that rushing projects will only cause them to go poorly. But like Bielski, Guarino also would like to see traffic safety measures recommended in the master plan. Specifically, he said he is in favor of suggesting that the Complete Streets policy — which was added last year as an amendment to the 2010 master plan — become a requirement all applicants before the Planning Board should follow. That way, he said, Complete Streets can better complement the master plan’s vision.

Guarino, who serves on the DWOA Board of Trustees in addition to the PSAB, said a mandatory Complete Streets policy will certainly make the downtown area more attractive. Similarly, he said he would like to see the master plan recommend more off-street parking so that residents will have a better opportunity to walk and bike to the district.

“You can do all the fantastic buildings you want to build, but if you don’t create walkability then (anything) you do down there is not going to work,” Guarino said in a March 3 phone interview.