Committee, Residents Face Off on Commuter Parking
An ordinance to authorize spending to design a parking garage prompts a lively discussion.
The Millburn Township Committee continues to move forward with gathering information to determine how it should address commuter parking, but residents expressed displeasure with the process Tuesday night.
The committee approved spending up to $500,000 on design work for a parking garage for the Millburn Train Station during its meeting Tuesday night. Several committee members said authorizing the funding was necessary for its request for proposals on providing designs for the garage.
"We need to identify where the funds will come from," said Township Administrator Tim Gordon on the process of sending out a RFP. "Sometimes it comes from the operating budget, sometimes we need to (issue a bonding ordinance)."
The committee approved sending out the RFP for designs during its meeting in November. Two phases of designs were requested—the first phase for conceptual designs for Lots 2 and 7 and a second phase for final designs in one of the two locations. A subcommittee of committee members James Suell and Robert Tillotson is examining adding about 200 parking spaces at the train station to address current use and potential future growth.
"This is not the end of (the process)," said Mayor Thomas McDermott. "There are plans for public meetings when the RFP comes back."
Daniel Baer, a committee member, said the conceptual designs would allow committee members to decide if they should move forward with a garage and, if so, at what location. The conceptual designs, which would provide information like cost of construction, would cost much less than the authorized $500,000, he said.
Deputy Mayor Sandra Haimoff said township officials have been discussing increasing commuter parking for at least a decade. The committee may never spend money on a garage or any other parking plan, she said. "We're just saying the money is there is we decide to move forward," she said. "We want people to respond with facts, not emotions."
But several community members expressed concern with the process. Some also questioned if there is even a need for an increase in commuter parking not only at the Millburn station but also at the Short Hills Train Station, citing a plan that would require over 100 trees to be cut down.
Ellen Steinberg, a former committee member, accused committee members of being "sneaky" and keeping the RFP approval and funding request low key. The agenda posted on the township website in November did not have the items included, she said, and she didn't find out about Tuesday's items until Monday. She said she believes the parking plan deserves proper hearings.
Peter Humphreys, who ran for committee last fall and is Steinberg's husband, said the committee is using a distraction trick to get people to support the parking deck. The trick is the proposal to add up to 60 parking spaces at the Short Hills Train Station by cutting down the trees. Neighbors have been opposed to the proposal.
"Someone says to look at surface parking ... and you pick the dumbest plan," he said. "You put ribbons on the trees and tell us that is the surface (parking) option. You knew what would happen."
Humphreys said the move plays the two sides against each other—those opposed to a parking deck and those who oppose the removal of the trees.
He also questioned if there is any accountability with further meetings and votes on spending the $500,000. McDermott said the committee still would need to approve a contract during a public meeting, which would authorize the money to be spent. "There will be many hearings," he said.
Regina Cariddi, of Save Trees Over Parking, quetioned the committee's motives, concerned she took the bait.
Haimoff said there is no trick and the subcommittee is doing its research and due diligence. Township officials were told they have not examined surface parking options, she said, which led to the proposal for Short Hills parking. Township Forester Tom Doty went out to show what trees would need to be removed by tying ribbons on them. But it's part of a report that has not come to the full committee yet, Haimoff said.
Cariddi said without proper communication the ribbons provided more misunderstanding. Officials need to think clearly about their actions when doing something like putting up the ribbons without any clear explanation.
Bette Grayson, a resident and attorney, said she doesn't see the need for an increase in commuter parking. Since fall 2008, there has been a decrease in the use of parking at the train station, she said, citing how people may be out of work or telecommute more. The second lot and its valet service there isn't always needed, she said.
She also questioned the funding the committee was planning to approve Tuesday night. She didn't understand why the committee needed to approve the funding before a RFP had been filed.
Grayson revealed earlier in the meeting she represents Park Plus, the company currently providing valet service at the train station. James Suell, a committee member, said the township spends up to $300,000 per year on valet service and has spent millions of dollars over the years on it. "It was supposed to be a temporary solution," he said.
Elizabeth Henry, a Glen Avenue resident, said a parking deck was proposed years ago, but there was resistance to it. The committee should be getting the pulse of the community and its feeling on constructing a deck before moving forward.
"Why bother with a RFP if people are dead set against it," she said. "You should survey the residents."
Baer said the process is to help residents understand the situation so they can form an informed opinion. "We can't ask people if they want (the deck) without informing the community," he said.