PSAB celebrates victories, but hopes to see more done

WEST ORANGE, NJ — The West Orange Planning Board is expecting to adopt a Complete Streets policy for inclusion in the township’s master plan at its May 4 meeting, Paul Grygiel, the West Orange Planning director, announced at the March 30 meeting of the West Orange Pedestrian Safety Advisory Board.

The Planning Board had already adopted a Complete Streets resolution on July 9, 2013, with the document stating that all public streets projects undertaken by the town should accommodate pedestrians and bicyclists through the implementation of crosswalks, paved shoulders, pedestrian scale lighting and other safety means wherever feasible. But as Grygiel explained, the Township Council never acted on the resolution.

Grygiel said passing the same resolution as part of the master plan — which the board and applicants must use as a guideline in making decisions on all projects — will make a difference.

“It’s the first step to make it more formal,” Grygiel said. “Right now it’s just a resolution that carries no weight (beyond) ‘Hey, this is a nice idea.’ This will make it a little bit more real.”

Once the board includes the policy in the master plan, Grygiel said the council can then adopt Complete Streets ordinances that will further give the pedestrian-safety concept more bearing on township projects. Councilman Jerry Guarino pointed out that having a Complete Streets policy in the town master plan will give more credence to any requests the township makes to the county in addition to bolstering grant applications.

Meanwhile, the Pedestrian Safety Advisory Board can apply for grants. In fact, West Orange Council of PTAs member Lori Kapferer said she recently applied for a grant from the state Department of Health meant to assist municipalities interested in changing their policies to improve walkability on their roadways. If the township is awarded this grant, Kapferer said it can help cover the cost of including the Complete Streets policy in the master plan and eventually passing council ordinances based on it.

“It sounds like we’re moving in that direction anyway, but I think if we actually receive the grant, it will be an extra push we have to say ‘We really are serious about this. We want to move forward,’” Kapferer said.

However, Complete Streets was only one topic of discussion at the meeting. West Orange resident Eric Freedman expressed his belief that sidewalks should be added connecting the Northfield corridor to the South Mountain Recreation Complex, saying it is more environmentally friendly to encourage residents who live in the area to walk to the complex than drive, and also safer. Since Northfield Avenue is a county road, Freedman asked what discussions the township has had with Essex County officials about implementing such a project. He stressed that action will only come once the county knows how strongly people feel about the situation.

“It doesn’t seem to me that it’s an active issue within the county,” Freedman said. “How do we make it one?”

Guarino responded that the township has raised the idea of installing sidewalks on Northfield with the county for quite some time. In fact, Leonard Lepore, the township engineer, pointed out that the Planning Board usually recommends adding sidewalks to the area whenever it gives a courtesy review of an Essex County project in West Orange — though the county is not legally mandated to comply.

The Pedestrian Safety Advisory Board instead suggested that residents who desire the sidewalks could make the biggest impact. Mike Dannemiller, a township parent and civil engineer who often does work for Essex County, even said that he thinks the county might have Northfield and Pleasant Valley Way on a “hot list” of signalized intersections to redesign and bring up to current code. Therefore, Dannemiller said writing a letter to Lepore for his records expressing the need for sidewalks on those roadways could serve as timely documentation of public support for such improvements so that the county will take notice.

Otherwise, Guarino said the best thing Freedman can do is to continue to participate in Pedestrian Safety Advisory Board meetings. The councilman explained that the municipality cannot simply demand that the county implement changes — the county would just respond that it will act eventually, and there would be nothing the town could do since it does not own the land. But, in acting in an organized fashion, the board has demonstrated to the county that it is serious about traffic safety, and the county has replied in kind.

“We’ve gotten more accomplished than was ever accomplished before,” Guarino said. “In the past year we’ve gotten a better relationship, so we’re getting cooperation.”

Dannemiller pointed out that, as a result of its working relationship with the county, the advisory board was able to suggest adding shoulder stripes to Pleasant Valley Way when it was repaved last year.

“We’ll celebrate these little successes, but we’re building on them,” Dannemiller said.

The next success the advisory board hopes to see is Guarino’s long-planned ordinance to reduce the speed limits for sections of Pleasant Valley Way, where cars often speed, despite the fact that the area is home to several schools and synagogues. The councilman said the measure should be completed within the next two weeks, after the township legal department finishes working on it and the Planning Board makes sure it is in compliance with the master plan. He said it will then go before the Township Council and, if passed there, sent to the county — the only entity that can actually make changes on the road. And Guarino indicated that he was optimistic the county will approve his ordinance, pointing out that freeholders Brendan Gill and Leonard Luciano have both already expressed their support for it.

As for additional improvements, Thomas Edison National Historical Park Superintendent Tom Ross suggested that the advisory board obtain a copy of the county’s capital improvements plan — a prioritized list of projects Essex County is expecting to complete in the future — so that the board can request certain Complete Streets items for inclusion within the scope of upcoming county projects in West Orange.

Meanwhile, Guarino said some of the advisory board members will meet within the next month to finalize the board’s action plan of municipal traffic safety improvements. The completed document will then be presented at the next board meeting.

Photos by Sean Quinn