The process we use to work with contentious land use and zoning issues is NOT OK. Too many decisions are made “under the radar” and behind closed doors.
Every community in New Jersey has a Master Plan that describes its vision for how community development will proceed now and in the future. The re-zoning of the Honeywell property required an amendment to our Master Plan. I believe the process used to work with this situation was flawed. These flaws were exacerbated by the climate of mistrust our longstanding practice of single-party domination has created.
The most important flaw (in my view) is that key decisions (like crafting the specifics of a proposal tailored to Honeywell’s input) were carried out behind closed doors by a small group of officials who many in the community suspected of favoring Honeywell’s interests over the neighbors’. While the process did include plenty of opportunities for public comment, many residents who were not part of the “in-group” of decision makers did not trust the integrity of this forum. The opportunities for public input were viewed by many as a formality for rubberstamping an outcome that had basically been predetermined by the powers that be.
This situation (in my view) is a case study in what happens when the dispute includes emotionally-charged issues like the safety, security, and value of one’s home AND the parties whose interests are threatened distrust the legitimacy of the resolution process and perceive it as fundamentally suspect and unfair.
These circumstances are a set-up for communication to break down, for people to become entrenched in their positions, and for threatened parties to go to extreme lengths to protect their own interests. That is exactly what happened in this situation. This case continues in litigation – a high-cost outcome in dollars, trust, aggravation, and future relationship potential. Honeywell has now decided to leave Morris Township. These outcomes could not be more of a “lose-lose” for everyone.
My opponent, Peter Mancuso, played a key role in implementing this process on the Township Committee and the Planning Board. This lose-lose outcome occurred on his watch. I believe Mayor Mancuso is well intentioned and did his best to make this process work. In my view, his failure on this issue was not due to lack of effort but rather to lack of vision. The difference between us on this issue is that I can see that the process needs to be changed. He, apparently, does not see that. This is understandable: it’s hard to see process problems when you’re an insider in the power structure that perpetuates them.
So what would I do differently? I think we need to develop a better process for how we work with our Master Plan. I see our current process as traditional, outdated, top-down, and ineffective in working with circumstances such as those that Honeywell presented.
By contrast, a state of the art process would invite public participation from beginning to end in engaging with professional planners, elected officials, and fellow residents in such activities as: crafting a vision, developing short-range and long-range goals, identifying problems and concerns, working together to generate possible solutions, evaluating the advantages and disadvantages of each, and agreeing to the procedural rules that will be used in the future to change decisions that are made today.
If this approach sounds like a pipe dream, it is not. This is exactly what many communities (including Morristown) are doing. A state-of-the-art planning process is collaborative, bottom-up not top-down, effective in preventing Honeywell-like situations from occurring in the first place, and better at handling such situations constructively when they do arise.
The most basic ingredient in this approach compared to ours is that it is structured to build trust in the integrity, openness, and transparency of the process. Applying a variation of this process to the Honeywell situation would have been possible but challenging. That’s why, for me, the REAL solution is to revamp our planning process as a whole – that is, as it applies to developing, amending, and reviewing our Master Plan. (I think Morris Township has an exceptional need for this type of process in regard to working with open space tracts of land). Honeywell showed us that the old, traditional way has significant limitations. It’s time to change our planning process. Morris Township residents deserve a state of the art process that is open, transparent, and trust inspiring.