Planning Task Force Goes from Concept to Reality

Clint Andrews is professor and associate dean for Planning and New Initiatives in the Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University, educated at Brown and MIT as an engineer and planner, a member of the American Institute of Certified Planners, a LEED Accredited Professional, and a licensed Professional Engineer. But for Highland Park residents, other crucial credentials are that he lives in Highland Park, cares intensely about the future of his town, and is now chairperson of the Capital Improvements Planning Task Force, which held its organizational meeting on Oct. 23 and will reconvene on Dec. 3, 6 p.m. at the law offices of Middlesex County Freeholder James Polos.

The motivation for such a task force is simple and obvious. The strategy for implementing the task, however, is neither simple nor obvious. Highland Park, NJ, is about to embrace a growth spurt in residential development. By 2024, the community could have over 500 new residential units, estimated 50 more affordable units to serve low and moderate income individuals,  bringing as many as 1,000 new residents, additional traffic, and increased stress on water quality, sewer system, power supply, and the school system.  The new development also could bring more vibrancy and economic benefits to the downtown and more dollars to the municipal coffers.

“We just don’t want to say ‘no’ to development, we just have to say ‘yes’ in a way that enhances the community,” said Planning Board member Heather Wilkerson. “We have to be proactive and plan for appropriate development, rather than be reactive….We have to get ahead of the development, control our future,” she said, after a recent Planning Board meeting at which the Board recommended the zoning changes that would accommodate the American Properties Cleveland Avenue development.

“Proper planning must be the beacon to good development,” said Highland Park Mayor Gayle Brill Mittler. “This is why, when I first became mayor in June, I immediately created a new Capital Improvements and Planning Task Force composed of volunteers, who are professionals in their fields, to assess our current needs and advise us of the impact of development on our schools, police and first responders, borough and community services, roads, sewers, and water lines. I have also included members of the school board and district administration to ensure that these needs are covered,” the mayor said.

The Planning Board has the statutory authority to annually prepare a program of municipal capital improvements and projects projected over a term of six years and make recommendations to the governing body. But this never has been done town-wide, holistically, as opposed to doing each impacted area (schools, water, roads, power) separately, noted Dr. Andrews.

At the Oct. 23rd meeting, Dr. Andrews introduced the members who include:

.–At-large Representatives: Clint Andrews (chair), Christine Thornton (civil engineer), Nancy Wolf (public utilities);

–Political Representatives: Kim Hammond (planning board chair), Dan Ross (school board president), Mark Mappen (library board), Phil George (borough council and finance chair), Jenni Chapman (Main Street Highland Park), Jim Polos (Middlesex County Freeholder Board);

–Technical Representatives: Israel Soto (schools superintendent), Jane Stanley (library directory), Stephen Rizko (police chief), Don Risch (Department of Public Works), Kathleen Kovach (borough administrator and finance officer).

At the Oct. 23 meeting, Dr. Andrews also reviewed the process of creating a Capital Improvements Plan:

  1. Inventory existing assets and their condition.
  2. Project change (growth) in population and associated demand for public services.
  3. Create a wish list of new capital assets needed, with accompanying explanatory and cost details.
  4. Establish criteria for setting priorities.
  5. Create a prioritized list of new capital assets.
  6. Assess the budgetary impacts.
  7. Include explanatory text.
  8. Utilize a spring semester Bloustein Planning and Public Policy studio class, in which about a dozen graduate students for doing the legwork to inventory all the resources and to develop school population projections that would be applicable to Highland Park.

“Right now we have a lot of opinions about what is in store for the community. We have anecdotal evidence. We need better scientific projections, and we need the big picture,” said Dr. Andrews who hopes to establish a more definitive timeline for completion of the Task Force mission at the next meeting on Dec. 3, 2014.

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