Four candidates are vying for two open seats on the Hillsborough Township Committee this Nov. 6, giving voters an opportunity to bring new faces and ideas to the governing body.
Currently comprised entirely of Republicans, the committee is losing two incumbents from its roster this year, as neither Greg Burchette nor Carl Suraci filed as candidates earlier this year.
When residents get to the polls next month, they will whether Democratic candidates Olivia Holmes and Jeffrey Wright and Republicans Ron Skobo and Shawn Lipani will serve on the committee for the next three years. Lipani is currently serving on the committee for the remainder of Burchette’s term.
In order to provide candidates with an equitable platform to discuss their plans for the school district, all four were given the same questions and the same amount of space for their responses.
Why are you running for a spot on the committee? What drives you to public service?
Holmes: Moving to Hillsborough 32 years ago, I was attracted to the natural beauty, the farmlands, the rolling hills, the rivers, and the Delaware & Raritan Canal. Being centrally located between New York City and Philadelphia, Hillsborough was the perfect place to enjoy country living while still being near the arts and culture of the city. My husband and I bought a house at the foot of the Sourland Mountains and raised our family here. Both of my sons are graduates of Hillsborough High School. For the last 25 years I’ve run a successful photography business in town, Olivia Holmes Photography. Hillsborough is my home.
Over the years, I’ve seen many changes, many of them, not for the better. Overdevelopment and traffic are changing the character of our town. Property taxes keep rising. I am running for the committee to do my best to change these things.
Lipani: I have spent the past 15+ years serving the township on various boards and commissions. I am eager to continue this service as a committeeman. Growing up in Hillsborough, my father was the chairman of the Hillsborough Board of Adjustment for years and is still an active member of the Hillsborough Rotary. Additionally, as a small business owner in Hillsborough I would provide an important segment of our communities insight to the committee.
Skobo: Over the years, I’ve served on many county and township boards and commissions and have volunteered for numerous community organizations. It has always been a lifelong commitment of mine to give back to the community. Serving on the township committee and representing the people of Hillsborough has been an aspiration of mine for a while but the right opportunity just never presented itself before.
Wright: I have been involved in community service and public service practically my entire life, having served on the zoning board, senior citizens board, and open space committee in my prior community. I moved to Hillsborough four years ago with my family in part because of Hillsborough’s reputation for great neighborhoods, schools, activities, and home values. Since then, I have become acutely aware of neighbors’ and others’ concerns about tax increases, the amount of construction and development approved or in progress, the condition of the roads and the rate at which the township is borrowing. I am a Registered Financial Advisor, and feel that by having a deep understanding of our township finances, I can help make Hillsborough affordable for those who own homes as well as those who rent.
Other than taxes, what would you say are the most pressing issues facing the township? If elected, how do you plan to tackle those issues?
Holmes: Hillsborough has a unique character. In addition to all of the natural assets I stated above, the opening of the Duke Estate to the public is another attraction that will bring people to our town. However, after they come to enjoy these assets where will they go to spend their money? Will they come to support local businesses or travel to Somerville or Princeton to dine and shop because of their welcoming walkable downtowns?
Some people that are new to town may not remember, but not too long ago, our tax dollars were spent to conduct a professional study for our downtown development. Recommendations were made for a “Downtown District” that would include tree-lined streets, bike paths, interesting architectural elements, public spaces and more. We have an ordinance and a zoning map to accomplish these goals, why aren’t they being followed? Too often developers are given zoning changes to accommodate their projects. Why not make them give something back to the town? A vibrant downtown will not only improve the economy for existing businesses, it will bring in new business, improve our quality of life, and increase our property values.
Lipani: The affordable housing mandate. The fact that the state will not address the issue results in the courts through litigation determining each municipalities individual requirement. Unfortunately, we as a municipality can not change the law but we do require any new construction to provide a percentage of COAH (Council on Affordable Housing) housing in the plan which creates some constraints to growth while protecting the townships interest as well as the answer to the next question.
Skobo: I look forward to implementing a sustainable plan for maintaining our infrastructure, making sure our roads get the proper attention and funding. I’ll continue to work with our partners at the state to finish the Route 206 bypass and I am also committed to preserving land for open space and enhancing recreational opportunities for our children and senior citizens.
Wright: Since affordability is probably the greatest issue for residents, it’s hard to avoid the discussion of the township budget and priorities, if not taxes themselves. We must broaden the tax base by attracting new business, ending tax giveaways to developers, and reducing fees for township services.
We must create a comprehensive development plan to better manage growth, traffic and township services. We must develop a plan to maintain our transportation infrastructure well into the future, including resurfacing our crumbling roads. We must do a complete financial review of all township contracts, agreements, and income/expense line items.
One common refrain from residents is the fear of overdevelopment. Do you feel that is a real concern and if you do, what is your plan to allay those fears?
Holmes: Overdevelopment is a real concern. It is slowly chipping away at the character of our town. However, future development is inevitable. Development should be sensible and sustainable. High density development should be restricted to the downtown core and not built in existing farmlands or established neighborhoods.
Attending township committee meetings in the past, I’ve heard the argument made that these large corporate and commercial projects will add to our much-needed tax base – inferring that our taxes will go down. My taxes have never gone down during the entire time I’ve lived here, in fact, they have quadrupled.
Lipani: I have watched Hillsborough grow over the past 40 years. Many of our residents are a benefit of this growth. Hillsborough and Somerset County have managed growth effectively with open space and farmland preservation purchases over the years. I would continue to support this platform to help control growth.
Skobo: I do feel that is a legitimate concern. I believe part of the reason we all love living in Hillsborough is that it provides us with the best of both worlds in that it is an active, suburban community that is close to everything yet still offers us the scenic, bucolic landscape of our farming history. We can all appreciate the many farms and open space areas within the Township and the fact that we’ve withheld a lot of the suburban sprawl that has taken over other areas of the state. We have to continue to make preserving open space a top priority so that our future generations can also enjoy the rural beauty of our community.
Wright: Going door to door, I hear this from residents all the time, especially in certain neighborhoods where there is not one, but two or three development projects being approved or under construction. The first thing I would do to allay those concerns is make sure that developers are not unnecessarily incentivized to build because they receive tax abatements or other “discounts” that hurt our tax base. I would avoid as much as possible the negotiation of such contracts in executive session, outside of public view. I would encourage public input on proposed ordinances and include all supporting documents that are tax-affecting during public comment and as part of the formal documentation, something that is not always done currently.
How would you say you differ from your opponents? Why should voters choose you?
Holmes: I am a Democrat, but I believe that the problems we face in our town are non-partisan – traffic, unrepaired roads, overdevelopment, high taxes and a lack of interest in promoting Hillsborough’s natural assets. The Republicans have exclusively controlled our local government for at least the last fifteen years. As we have seen in our federal government, when one party is in power, and there are no checks and balances, that party tends to abuse that power. Too many times, important town issues are presented to the public as “done-deals” negotiated behind closed doors. Residents who come to town meetings to express their opinions have, at times, been ignored or rudely dismissed. I am running for township committee to bring a different voice – one that listens to the people and has a vision of a bright future for Hillsborough.
Lipani: My past experience as the chairman of the planning board, board of adjustment, Somerset County Planning Board, 40 year resident and local small business owner. I am from Hillsborough for Hillsborough. I live and work here and plan to be here with my family long after I would be finished as a committeeman.
Skobo: In addition to my law enforcement background, I also had a decade long career with the township. These experiences give me the unique position of understanding the complexities of local government unlike a lot of other people. I understand what constituents view as important because I’ve been on the front lines hearing it directly from them for years. I will use my knowledge and expertise to continue to move Hillsborough forward and I will bring an unparalleled level of dedication and commitment to serving the community and delivering on what matters to our residents.
Wright: I have not been a paid employee of the township or the county, and certainly not both. I am not an insider. I also don’t do business with the township, and therefore would not have to abstain my vote in approving bill lists. If you have to abstain your vote on billing, budget, and finance, then you really can’t work on improving our finances or reducing taxes. I do not have conflicts of interest in serving the township.
More importantly, I am absolutely committed to keeping Hillsborough affordable and attractive as a place to live, work, and raise a family. I know that we can do better on taxes and affordability and am anxious to work on optimizing our township expenses and income to improve the bottom line on taxes.
What, in your opinion makes Hillsborough somewhere you want to serve?
Holmes: It is my home.
Lipani: I believe and have been told as I have talked to our residents over the past few months that Hillsborough’s communities proximity to New York City and Philadelphia, top rated schools, safe and clean township, great parks and recreation facilities, programs for our seniors and Hillsborough’s commitment to our veterans are exemplary reasons to live in this great town and am proud to call Hillsborough my home.
Skobo: I have lived in Hillsborough for over 40 years and have raised my children here. I’m proud to say now that they have chosen to raise their children here as well. I have six grandchildren that call Hillsborough their home and they are part of the reason why I want to continue to make Hillsborough a great place to live.
Wright: As a resident and a relatively recent home buyer, I have made a commitment to be part of the community in Hillsborough. Having volunteered in my prior community and having served on boards and commissions, I understand how hard residents work in order to realize financial security. I am ready to serve on our township and I am confident our wonderfully diverse township will benefit from my efforts.