Monday Night Planning Board Football in Bridgewater (the Town)

Councilman Matt Moench, left, and School Board President Jeffrey Brookner at Monday night's Bridgewater Planning Board meeting. The pair are vying to succeed Dan Hayes as mayor of the sprawling Somerset County town.
Moench, left, talks with Bridgewater voter Ketan Thakker at Monday night's Planning Board meeting. Both spoke in opposition to the scale of a project on Highway 206 that has galvanized NIMBY voters.
Moench, left, talks with Bridgewater voter Ketan Thakker at Monday night’s Planning Board meeting. Both spoke in opposition to the scale of a project on Highway 206 that has galvanized NIMBY voters.

The complexity of the town and the centrality of schools within the confusing concentric circles of Bridgewater require School Board Member Jeffrey Brookner to have a nimble mind, and he does, by all accounts, but he was on Councilman Vice President Matt Moench’s home field last night in their Nov. 5th general election tussle for mayor.

Or was he?

Strategy isn’t always loquacious.

But in a race for mayor, if not vocal, it is local.

Each time Planning Board Chair Tricia Casamento asked for a public comment on the controversial Center of Excellence project, Moench sprang out of his chair and darted to the front of the room. There, in view of an overflow crowd of residents, many of them wearing red t-shirts inscribed with the words “Smart Development for Our Future: Preserve Bridgewater,” and the man he defeated in the Republican Primary, eight-year incumbent Mayor Dan Hayes, Moench proceeded to dissect the developers’ expert witnesses.

The future CIP II/AR Bridgewater Holdings LLC site of a hotel, supermarket, fitness/wellness center, restaurants with outdoor dining, a proposed 400 luxury apartment units and boutiques, Center of Excellence represents the biggest single development project in the biggest Somerset County town since the Bridgewater Commons mall.

The developer in question, Advance Reality, has already won, having acquired the former Sanofi Aventis property on Route 202/206 for $45 million and selling part of it to Thor just last month for $152 million. But now amid variance conversations in the neighborhood of 1,000 to 2,000 parking spaces alongside a highway one step removed from a country road, the issue continues to galvanize Moench’s base.

Running on the Republican ticket for Bridgewater Town Council, emergency medical responder Tim Ring spoke out against the scale of the proposed 202/206 development.
Running on the Republican ticket for Bridgewater Town Council, emergency medical responder Tim Ring spoke out against the scale of the proposed 202/206 development.

And to propel Moench.

“Any analysis about where, if the planning board did not come back with a variance, you would put parking?” the GOP mayoral candidate asked civil engineer Craig Hermann.

“There are a number of things we would need to deal with,” Hermann said.

It was not an answer immediately satisfactory to the crowd, which mumbled, perked up again as Moench again went on the offensive.

“How many spots could you get?”

Microphone trouble.

“Permits needed?”

Garble. Garble.

“You’re 1,000 units short, and yet you have no alternative if you can’t meet that waiver,” the candidate said, the crowd behind him.

Bridgewater School Board President Jeffrey Brookner, Democratic candidate for mayor, in the crowd.
Bridgewater School Board President Jeffrey Brookner, Democratic candidate for mayor, in the crowd.

Brookner was in that crowd, but all night – until the end of a three hour-plus meeting, when he went to the mic and cross-examined a witness – as the board played a game of chicken with the crowd, and the crowd played chicken with the board, one dragging out the proceedings to frustrate residents and send them home at a late hour so they could, presumably, vote on the behemoth in front of them; and the other asking exhaustive questions to wear out the board and delay a vote, pushing the monster of an issue closer to Election Day, the Democrat mostly let Moench do the talking.

If all politics is local, as Tip O’Neill once said, the long-serving councilman, denied primary support of Somerset County GOP Chairman Al Gaburo before going and wrenching the mayoralty away from Hayes, knows what got him to the dance, a partner he’s going to stick with now in a politically jittery town, which Donald Trump won in 2016, and which Tom Malinowski won in 2018.

A 12-year veteran of local government, Republican Moench – who grew up in town – is running as the champion of land use, and as an opponent of over-development, using the Center for Excellence project as his punching bag as Brookner, honed on the school board, takes a less obviously confrontational position on the project, which was Hayes’s baby.

Like Brookner, the mayor didn’t have much to say at last night’s meeting. Two of his allies on the planning board resigned after Moench beat him and now, amid the creaking floorboards of local empire, the lame duck mayor must endure the considerable animations of Moench at the microphone, who took on each of the developer’s experts with the relish of the title character in a Bruce Lee video game dispatching caricatures of bad guys. In the words of one source in the crowd: Hayes did a great job during his first four years, using ratables to keep taxes low in Bridgewater – and he has – but he overreached with Center for Excellence in his second term, triggering alarm bells among traffic-besieged residents wary of their community becoming an edge city.

Some of them are also worried about – these are the source’s words – the “temporary” quality of new residents amid all the development, teetering town control over to Democrats in a shifting political environment.

There might be a strategy there for Brookner, a method to his low-key presence. Democrats (8,450 registered to 8,328 registered Republicans in Bridgewater) and Independent voters (13K unaffiliated in town) fed up with Trump, plus disaffected Republicans who were all-in with Hayes, who gave Moench an obligatory phone call on Election Night but to date has demonstrated no enthusiasm for his conqueror’s candidacy, might be the Democrat’s play. His party is also running hard countywide to displace incumbent Freeholder Pat Walsh and turn control of the county over to Democrats. But in a low-turnout, non-federal election year, Moench is playing to that galvanized

A local opponent of the project and the developer watch the Bridgewater Planning Board meeting from an overflow room in the Township Municipal Building.
A local opponent of the project and the developer watch the Bridgewater Planning Board meeting from an overflow room in the Township Municipal Building.

part of the local population on a local issue, his issue, the one he beat Hayes with in June. Last night prior to the planning boarrd, he only half joked, was the first time he left the county for a Somerset Republican-related event.

“I am an old Haight-Ashbury hippy from the 1960’s,” the pony-tailed Robert Thomas Young told InsiderNJ, holding up his phone to demonstrate a video of cars passing on the highway between his home and the development project in question.

It wasn’t Trump that drove him to the Planning Board meeting on Monday night.

It was the issue of over-development.

Ultimately, in keeping with its general rule about not hearing the testimony of witnesses after 10 p.m., the Planning Board took no action on Monday, as Bridgewater – the town, not the backup quarterback – inched inched another day closer to Nov. 5th game day.

Not in my backyard: The Bridgewater Planning Board crowd.
Not in my backyard: The Bridgewater Planning Board crowd.

 

 

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