LACK OF PUBLIC INPUT ON MASTER PLAN

MASTER PLAN REVIEW IS CRITICIZED FOR LACK OF PUBLIC INPUT

CRANFORD CHRONICLE
Friday, February 08, 2008
By LESLIE MURRAY
CRANFORD -- In the most comprehensive exchange on the subject to date, the Planning Board this week offered a timeline for completion of a revised Master Plan, though one board member criticized the process for what she called a failure to incorporate public input.

The Master Plan is a document that spells out the guidelines for and principles behind development in a community. Though it does not contain the precision of a zoning ordinance, the plan is intended to provide a blueprint for developers and local officials as they plot out future construction.

Periodic reviews of a Master Plan are required by state law. The reviews are often cursory, but Cranford is now in the midst of a more extensive re-evaluation, which was first authorized in 2006 but only began in earnest last year.

The subject recently became a hot-button issue, when developer Lehigh Acquisitions filed a "builder's remedy" lawsuit against the township claiming that Cranford had failed to meet its affordable housing obligation. Township officials had previously decided that the housing plan should be created as part of the Master Plan review, and the failure to complete the process before a suit was filed has caused some finger-pointing.

The review is being directed by a steering committee that includes Planning Board Chairman Bob Hoeffler and board members Kevin Illing and Ann Darby. At a public meeting Wednesday, they outlined the process to date, including a series of meetings with a professional planner, interviews with 20 stakeholders and countless revisions to existing documents.

"It really was a painstaking process," Darby said. Illing added that it took time to mold the generic components of a Master Plan into elements specific to Cranford.
Going forward, Hoeffler said he believes the township can be prepared to present the Master Plan to the public in March or April. But Darby and Illing disagreed, saying June was more feasible.

After it is compiled, the revised Master Plan will be presented to the full Planning Board, the Zoning Board of Adjustment and the Environmental Commission before going to the Township Committee for approval. After that point, a series of public meetings will be scheduled, followed by a potential redraft and then final approval by the governing body.

While there is a sense of urgency to have a revised plan in place, one board member said there should be more opportunity for public input before it is completed.
Rita LaBrutto, who was appointed to the Planning Board in January, asked why information about the substance of the plan had not been given to the public in smaller segments as the process moved forward. Commenting after the meeting LaBrutto said she found the "amount of public outreach," or lack thereof, to be disconcerting.

The issue, she said, is about what vision of Cranford the plan embraces -- whether it focuses on "small town" characteristics or continued development. A critic of much of the recent development on the North and South avenue corridors, LaBrutto said the character of the town which attracted many residents is changing. "What if you're off track?" she said.

In response, board attorney Nicholas Giuditta said segmenting the work and inserting a public comment section for each of the dozen components would increase the workload and expand the budget for the task.

"The laws are being complied with here, that's what matters. What also matters is that the public will have multiple opportunities to come and comment on the proposed Master Plan," Giuditta said.

Agreeing, Township Administrator Marlena Schmid said that with nearly two-thirds of the budget spent, changing the process now would not be feasible.

"This, to me, is like a research project where all of the pieces have to come together," Schmid said. "And to take each element (separately) seems kind of dangerous."

Darby agreed as well, saying none of the work had been conducted in a vacuum. "I'm just wondering if the process would be better served by tying it up with one big bow," Darby said. "All we're trying to do is serve up a document that will be improved upon and edited by the town's people."

However, board member Karen Capone agreed with LaBrutto, saying that more communication through the township Web site or TV35 would make residents better prepared to participate during the public comment period.

The discussion on the Master Plan is slated to continue during the Planning Board's next workshop session on Feb. 20.

Leslie Murray is a staff writer for The Chronicle. She can be reached at (732)396-4205 or lmurray@njnpublishing.com.