Some residents are having second thoughts about several sustainability measures the township has taken – opting into the Planning Area of the Highlands Act, and adding certain environmental measures in the current draft of Mahwah’s Master Plan.
About a dozen residents addressed the Planning Board and special guests Highlands Council Executive Director Gene Feyl and Highlands Chief Planner Maryjude Haddock-Weiler Monday night.
The duo was invited to Mahwah to explain the potential benefits of which would ease environmental and building restrictions set forth by the Highlands Council in an effort to spur economic growth. Mahwah opted into the Highlands Planning Area in 2011, and has been working to conform to the Highlands Act standards since.
The Highlands Regional Master Plan, drafted in 2008, divides the land in this region into sections that the Council feels should be preserved as much as possible, the Preservation Area, and those that should be developed in the "best interests" of the people living and working in the Highlands district, the Planning Area.
For Mahwah, being part of the preservation portion was mandatory, but the planning section was optional. Mahwah and Oakland are the only Bergen County towns included in the Highlands Act.
In the planning area, the township is considering proposing two centers – one that includes Route 17, Franklin Turnpike, and Route 202 including Ramapo College, and another in Fardale.
Haddock-Weiler said of the 10 Highlands towns that have already created centers, all are unique, and their designs are "very comunity-driven." If the proposed centers are approved by the Highlands Council, the township would be responsible for coming up with a development plan and zoning guidelines inside their borders, she said.
However, residents Monday night questioned why Mahwah opted into the planning area of the Highlands to begin with.
“I’ve been a resident of Mahwah for over 65 years,” Bill Dator, a member of the town’s Zoning Board of Adjustment who said he was not representing that group in his statements, said. “I think Mahwah has done a great job planning, in terms of ratables and open space.”
Dator presented the Stag Hill Road area as an example of his opposition to the environmental conformance. Stag Hill is classified as being in the Highlands Preservation area.
Previously, “Stag Hill was being rejuvenated as a really nice area of Mahwah,” Dator, a realtor by trade, said. “Since Highlands came in, there’s been zero growth.”
Resident Bob Lockwood agreed. “[It] kind of seems like we are at the mercy of this act, and are giving up our independence.” Lockwood questioned whether or not one of the Mahwah town council’s motivations behind opting into the planning area – to ease COAH affordable housing restrictions – was a viable reason.
Councilman Chuck Jandris, the liaison to the Planning Board, said there were additional reasons for opting in, like the protection of water and other natural resources.
"We are not the Hotel California," Feyl said. "You can leave." Feyl said the township could opt out of the Planning Area anytime, but it would lose the perks of opting in, like Highlands funding for certain development and preservation projects in Mahwah.
At a continued public hearing on the township’s new Master Plan Monday night, residents also questioned recommendations like incorporating a shuttle or trolley system in the township, decreasing the use of automobiles and increasing the use of mass transit, and adding walking paths and bike trails.
“Does this change what suburbia is?” Lockwood asked. “Do we want to park [at a park-n-ride] and get in a shuttle to go shopping?”
Resident and Board of Adjustment member George Cimis also questioned a recommendation for increased use of solar panels, asking that aesthetics come into play if panels are added around the township.
He also pointed out that the Master Plan suggests future development be concentrated on the eastern side of Mahwah. “Where is the line of demarcation?” he asked.
Professional Planner Joe Burgis, whose firm drafted the new Master Plan – which is being completely redone for the first time since 1989 – said he would research the answers to all resident questions posed Monday night and answer them at the next public hearing, scheduled for January 14.