An ordinary looking driveway in Morris Township is at the focal point of a simmering controversy among the freeholders and county park commission over a new development in Republican-dominated Morris County.
Officials on both sides are hoping for an amiable resolution, but the disagreement already is fraying some nerves. There are complaints supporters of the project are trying to pressure the commission into seeing things their way and a recent move by the freeholders to remove a park commission member who had been critical of the project.
This is troubling news in a locale where the Morris County Park Commission is revered for overseeing the largest county park system in the state.
At issue are plans by JMF Properties of Whippany to build a commercial and residential development near the park commission-run Mennen Arena on East Hanover Avenue in Morris Township. The plan, which quickly won approval by the Morris Township Planning Board this fall, includes multiple commercial buildings fronting East Hanover Avenue with homes at the rear of the property. Plans call for 143 market-priced townhouses, 30 affordable income homes and a group home with six units run by the Arc of Morris County.
The sticking point is that the development would use the same driveway as the Mennen Arena. The arena is home to a skating center, but also hosts various other events, including National Night Out each August. The developers have suggested expanding the driveway to four lanes and extending the road until it connects to another road at the rear of the property.
The park commission, an autonomous body created by the freeholders more than 60 years ago, doesn’t like that idea.
David Helmer, the commission’s executive director, said in a recent memo to park commissioners that the “use of the arena driveway for residential, retail and office development is unacceptable and inconsistent with the language and intent of the easement.”
Helmer declined to talk about the issue, but other park commission data show that officials are concerned with conflicts among residents, users of the commercial development and visitors to the Mennen Arena. Among them are concerns residents and visitors may use the arena parking lot.
This may seem to be merely one of those routine disputes that emerge from time to time with any large-scale development, if not for persistent lobbying by the developer and his representatives.
One of those reportedly pushing the project is John Sette, a former park commissioner himself and until recently, chair of the Morris County Republican Committee.
Asked about it, Sette said simply that the developer is a friend of his. A representative of JMF Properties didn’t return phone calls.
Nonetheless, the behind the scenes activity apparently has gotten so intense that the freeholders were specifically urged by the county administration to refer all queries about the project to county lawyers.
Helmer did likewise.
In his memo, he said, “The developer and/or the developer’s representatives have been trying to apply pressure through various means” to compel the commission to agree to the developer’s driveway plan.
The park commission is not a group to be trifled with. It has its roots in the county’s blue-blooded past, having created much of its 13,000-plus acres of parks by securing large land donations from wealthy widows upon their deaths. For example, its headquarters (now being renovated) are in a museum-like building in Morris Township that was once the summer home of Matilda Frelinghuysen, the congressman’s aunt. But the commission also looks ahead, working hard to expand and protect its resources going forward, which becomes more critical every year as the population increases and open land disappears.
Still, it’s clear the commission’s stance may be ruffling some freeholders who’d rather see it go along with the developer’s request.
The freeholders are not reappointing park commission member Lou Valori, who is also an outgoing Parsippany councilmen, when his term expires the end of this year. Valori says he’s convinced he is being removed because he’s been outspoken on the commission against the developer’s driveway plan.
The freeholders don’t comment on personal appointments until they’re officially made in January.
Publicly, freeholders and park commissioners are minimizing reports of disagreement between the bodies and expressing confidence the driveway issue will be worked out.
“There is no rift between the freeholders and the park commission,” said Freeholder Director Doug Cabana.
That seems a little hard to believe.