Berkeley Heights Council Votes 5-1 Against Berkeley Aquatics Sewer Hookup
Wednesday, December 5, 2012 • 7:13am
BERKELEY HEIGHTS, NJ – The Township Council surprised a packed meeting room on Tuesday, Dec. 4 after voting down an ordinance that would have allowed Berkeley Aquatics to connect to the township’s sewage plant. The council questioned, and has requested a legal opinion on, whether a public referendum, which was thought to be the next step, is proper.
Berkeley Aquatics wants to build a 51,000 square foot aquatic facility that would be located just over the border in Warren, in a residential area. It is currently located in Berkeley Heights. The council previously evaluated and denied the proposal. Last month, Berkeley Aquatics introduced an ordinance by petition allowing the measure. The petition was signed by 535 residents. It was originally thought that if the council voted to deny it, a public referendum would be required within 90 day, but that may not be the case.
Councilman Robert Woodruff was the first to question the referendum and he put forth a resolution asking Township Attorney Joseph Sordillo to look into whether it would be appropriate to halt the referendum because the subject matter, contracts, should be the responsibility of the elected council members and not a public referendum. All members of the council except Councilman Edward Delia agreed. An answer is expected by the next meeting on Tuesday, Dec. 18, possibly before if Woodruff is correct. If a referendum is necessary, it must be held within 90 days.
Several residents spoke against the connection.
Bill Acheson said, “It’s a country road. Warren doesn’t have street lights (in that area). It would eventually take the value away from homes. I’m a NIMBY. I thank you for your leadership.”
Richard Brindle questioned the estimated traffic numbers. There are supposed to be “30-40 competitions a year with 400 people at each. The traffic and parking numbers don’t add up. There are 200 parking spots but there will be more than 200 cars showing up.” He is concerned overflow parking will end up on local Berkeley Heights streets.
Mark Meyers said, “Big business is trying to muscle in on our community.” He took issue with the way the signatures for the petition had been obtained. He noted his wife, and likely others, had signed the petition without reading it when a young woman told her “We’re just trying to do something for our kids. We need a few signatures.”
Steve Yellin said, “It’s about the Golden Rule. Would you like a facility like this put in your neighborhood? I don’t think there are many residents who would be fine with that. It doesn’t affect me directly, but it affects everyone in this community. The council did the right thing in December (2011). Stand by that.”
Rebecca Acheson said, “I think homes are going to go down in value and taxes are going to go up. When you open this can of worms, you don’t know who’s going to go fishing.”
The majority of the council agrees with that assessment. They said are concerned that opening the sewerage authority to one commercial entity could cause others to follow.
Only Peter Wolfson, attorney for Berkeley Aquatics, spoke in favor of the facility. He noted Berkeley Heights already treats sewage from non-residential properties outside of the township. He said the plant has excess capacity of 1.4 million gallons per day and this project would represent only .35 percent of that. Wolfson said the project would provide revenue to the township and by approving the petition, the municipality could avoid further litigation costs and the money it would cost to hold the special referendum.
Mayor Joseph Bruno said, “My chief responsibility is to the residents. During the storm my number one priority was to protect the sewer plant because if the sewer plant was offline when you went to flushed your toilet it would have backed up into your bathroom. It is our number one revenue producer. It is an ecosystem that is delicately balanced. The water has to be clean. It is our sewer plant. We pay the taxes for it. It has to stand in perpetuity. We have two hotels on the books. We also have an office building that has been approved. My responsibility is to protect that plant. It is in the Municipal Utilities Law. I don’t get to vote. I just want you to know my opinion.”
Council President Kevin Hall said, “This is not a moral judgment on Berkeley Aquatics and its contribution to our town. This is about whether Berkeley Heights wants to modify commercial contracts… This defines how we would continue working regionally… Contracts in place do not accommodate commercial throughput.”
The vote was 5 against the petition to 1 for it. After the meeting Council DeLia explained why he chose to vote as he did. “We have the capacity. Something else will be built there -- 500-700 condominiums could be the same amount of capacity. I’d like to double the fee for commercial use. It would have saved us money if we had approved it.”
In other business:
Council members discussed a property swap with Church of the Little Flower. On Sunday the pastor said in his homily that he would like to trade the land where the upper church sits for the township library, to get all of the church’s land located in the same area along Plainfield Avenue. On Tuesday, council members initially favored the idea because it would enable the township to have a municipal campus in the upper church area. Early thoughts are to sell the municipal building and develop it to increase the downtown area. The church and the town plan to address the economic and strategic issues before proceeding further.
Bruno said, “It does present a unique opportunity for us. It has to be right for the township and it has to be right for them. We will proceed cautiously and share (the information) with the public.”