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Howell Township Council rejects changes to sign code

By Jennifer Ortiz
Staff Writer

HOWELL — Members of the Howell Township Council have voted to keep a municipal regulation in place even though, if challenged, the regulation may not hold up in court.

Howell has a regulation which requires an entity applying for municipal approval of a development project to place a sign on the land where the development is proposed as a means of notifying the community about what is intended to occur at that location.

According to the regulation, the sign must state the name of the applicant, the name of the public body from which the applicant is seeking approval, the phone number of that public body so an individual may seek information as to the date and time of the public hearing for the application, and other information.

The council recently introduced an ordinance that would repeal the regulation. Municipal officials said the regulation was no longer enforceable because courts have ruled out enhanced notice of applications.

In December, the council members considered the adoption of the ordinance. After discussing the issue, they voted 5-0 to reject the proposal to repeal the regulation.

Councilwoman Pauline Smith said, “I fought long and hard for this ordinance because in rural areas, (providing notice of the public hearing only to property owners within) 200 feet (of the development site) is not nearly enough. … What about all of the other people who are affected who have a problem with water, maybe flooding or a lack of water. There are a lot of things they would have to say, too,” at a public hearing concerning the development application.

Smith said she saw signs posted at development sites in other towns that provided notice to the general public about a specific application.

“I thought, ‘What a great idea,’ so I brought it to town hall and asked if we could do that because there is a lack of notice. You call it enhanced (notification); it is not enhanced because the way we do it now we do not reach everyone who is concerned. It did not happen until I got on council. I pushed and I shoved,” Smith said.

Township Attorney McKenna Torcivia said, “We do have a requirement that once (a project is) approved that a sign be posted. We cannot require an enhanced notice. If somebody challenges it … the concern is that we would pay money to defend it and lose.”

Mayor Bill Gotto said the question to be answered was whether the existing regulation regarding a notification sign would be enforceable if the amended ordinance was rejected by the council.

“If someone has a proposal they are submitting to (a municipal) board … and a neighbor knows about it and asks for a sign to be posted and we keep (the regulation) in place, can we enforce it? Can we require that property owner to put up that sign?” Gotto asked.

Torcivia said, “You can (require it), but you can also get sued.”

Gotto said he believes a sign should be posted on a potential development site when an application is filed with the township and he said the application should not be reviewed until the sign has been posted.

“We are not in a position to sue somebody or deny somebody (access) to a board if they do not post a sign, but we can try to ask and try to encourage people” to do that, the mayor said.

Deputy Mayor Robert Nicastro said, “If we cannot enforce the ordinance that is on the books, it is a waste of an ordinance. Let’s do it the right way. Let’s make changes by reaching out to (state) legislators and asking for change. (A sign with information) is a great argument, especially in the rural areas.”

Gotto, Nicastro, Smith, Councilman Ed Guz and Councilman Robert Walsh voted to deny the amended ordinance, leaving the municipal regulation in place and subject to challenge if an applicant seeking development approval wishes to challenge the sign requirement.

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