HOWELL – Two residents have asked Democratic Mayor Theresa Berger to describe how she plans to back up a statement she has made while in office to stop development in Howell.
The Feb. 9 meeting of the Township Council was held in a virtual manner during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. Residents are permitted to email questions to municipal officials.
In January, Berger began serving her second four-year term as mayor.
Resident James Moretti emailed a question to Berger and said, “Now that the election is over, I hope we can get back down to business. You campaigned on stopping developments. When can we see your plan and how this can take place? Do you have a plan and if so, when can we expect to see it issued to the town?”
Berger said one person is not responsible for development in a town, “but my personal thoughts around this (issue) are that to be able to stop unwanted development in our town … we can’t just spot zone and we shouldn’t be changing rules and spot changing.
“I think everything should be more transparent, which I don’t think it is. I think the only way for us to stop any kind of development is to have absolute transparency on all projects that are going on in town,” the mayor said.
Berger said she does not think everyone is aware of all the projects that are going on in Howell.
“To be perfectly honest, the majority of the council has been approving things across last year and this year over projects I fought against,” she said. “I think the only way to have good growth in our town is to be able to sit down and realize what the people in our town want from Howell.”
Republicans have a 3-2 majority on the governing body.
Berger said she wants to form a committee and went on to say, “I would like to have 15 members of our community, three members from each fire district; each fire district will have one vote within that group, and that group should be there with the Planning Board.
“It should be an advisory committee to be able to ensure the projects that are going forward in town are the projects that (residents) feel are good for the town; not projects that are growth for some political friends or things of that nature,” the mayor said.
Berger said she believes if those in charge of the township continue to do things in a vacuum, different areas of Howell could have projects built that the people in those areas might not necessarily want.
“So for me to begin to stop growth would be to have better information given out at these meetings. All projects we are doing, all the projects we are changing, … and the spot zoning should stop.
“I think if we are going to move forward … and not sell out (the town), we need to as a group truly understand what we want, what (residents) believe are good (projects) for Howell because I am not hearing from them.
“I am hearing from local developers and I am hearing from people who own property and just want to turn that property into warehouses and/or what have you,” Berger said.
Councilwoman Pamela Richmond said she did not understand what Berger meant by selling out.
“Who are we selling out to? People who have a permitted use?” Richmond said. “And spot zoning is illegal. We spot zone when it is qualified for (affordable housing) and that is the only time that happens. That is a state regulation.”
Berger said she is not certain that is the case.
Richmond responded to the mayor and said, “You are alluding to the fact this is not for public view. Anything we do, as far as (development) applications, is for public review. The information is there. Don’t mislead the people and make them think it is not there and they have no transparency. That is very unfair and misleading.”
During the public comment portion of the meeting, Joe DiBella, who served as Howell’s Republican mayor from 2004-08, criticized Berger for what he called a lack of leadership.
“The election is over and for four years (during Berger’s first term), I have heard ‘stop the development.’ I have heard that catchy soundbite. Yet in four years I have not seen a single comprehensive plan ever presented by our mayor … other than let’s have a committee four years later to address the issue,” DiBella said.
“As a taxpaying resident of the community, this is a policy issue. I have not personally disparaged you. I am asking as a resident. After four years, your plan to ‘stop the development’ is another committee?
“I am expecting the governing body under your leadership, you have made this your mantra, I am expecting to see a comprehensive plan that is compliant with the Municipal Land Use Law,” he said.
DiBella said a committee such as the one Berger described, “with all due respect, is not going to get it done.”
Berger said any plan she has presented gets turned down.
DiBella responded and told Berger to “put a plan out for the public, rally support, challenge the (Republican) majority, get something done. If you have a plan, where is the plan? The answer is you don’t have a plan.”
“We are all aware the mayor is one of five” elected officials on the Township Council, Democratic Councilman John Bonevich said.