Democrats would combine Planning and Zoning boards

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ABSECON - Three Democratic Party candidates for mayor and City Council are endorsing a plan to combine the city’s Planning and Zoning boards into a Land Use Board.

John Armstrong, the Democratic Party candidate for mayor suggested the proposal in a July 26 letter to Jerry Falivene, City Council president and Republican Party candidate for mayor.

“I believe that creation of a merged Absecon Land Use Board can save the city taxpayers money, provide for a more streamlined and efficient review process, add to the expertise of its members, and assure that Absecon’s zoning and planning standards are consistently enforced,” Armstrong said. “I urge council to adopt such an ordinance.”

Armstrong’s running mates, Bart Richter, 48, who is running to represent Ward No. 1, and Sandy Shenk-Cain, who is seeking the Ward No. 2 seat on council, both endorse the plan. Richter is running against Republican Frank Phillips and Shenk-Cain opposes Republican Chuck Urban.

The consolidation plan would save Absecon taxpayers money and better serve this city of 8,100 residents.

“It’s essentially built out,” Armstrong said. “Combining both boards into one would better serve the city and its taxpayers.”

According to the New Jersey Municipal Land Use law, municipalities of less than 15,000 residents can delegate the zoning board of adjustment powers to the planning board, Armstrong said. After passage and a “sunset” date passes, all new cases will be directed to a land use board.

Currently, 11 of Atlantic County’s 23 municipalities have combined boards, including Brigantine and Northfield, Armstrong said.

Both Northfield and Brigantine have “development plans similar to Absecon,” Armstrong said.

“I previously served as attorney for the combined Planning/Zoning Board of the Borough of Avalon, and I can attest to the benefits of a consolidated board for that community,” Armstrong said.

A land use board accomplishes many things, Armstrong said.

“First, although the Absecon Zoning Board attorneys and other professionals are paid both directly by the municipality and also by applicants for review of specific applications, elimination of the need for these professionals also eliminates the city’s responsibility for its portion of their compensation,” he said.

Secondly, a combined board assures a “consistent” approach to land use applications, Armstrong said. Developers won’t be tempted to get their applications before the board they believe is more sympathetic to their needs.

Also, a combined board would oversee all land use applications, giving its members more experience.

Finally, a combined board would reduce the confusion of applicants who are unsure where their application should be heard, Armstrong said.

“The New Jersey League of Municipalities has noted a trend among its members to shift to merged land use boards, noting that this step is particularly suitable for towns that are essentially built out and which do not experience a high volume of applications before their separate boards,” Armstrong said.

The move would cut costs and streamline the review process, he said.

From 2005 to 2010, the Zoning Board heard only 50 applications, Armstrong said.

“Clearly, even with a future rebound of the real estate market, the proposed Absecon Land Use Board can easily absorb the increased volume resulting from such a merger,” Armstrong said.

Armstrong praised the work of the current Zoning Board and Planning Board members.

“All members of our boards deserve our thanks and respect for their service,” he said.

“The present Zoning Board’s members could be considered for future appointment to the new Land Use Board,” he said. “In addition, the new board’s membership could legally be expanded to provide for two present Zoning Board members to serve as additional alternates immediately.”

However, Armstrong said he is concerned that state law dictates that the mayor, either Falivene or himself, would be the person who decides who sits on newly created Land Use Board.

Armstrong said he would agree to place any Land Use Board nominees before the City Council for its advice and consent to avoid “too much power” concentrated in the hands of one man.

“As for succeeding mayors, I believe it would be extremely difficult to abandon this public commitment,” Armstrong said.

Falivene, who is the Republican Party candidate for mayor, said Armstrong’s idea has been brought up before.

“It’s not a new idea,” Falivene said. “I think in some cases it’s the best way to go, but I’m not sure it would work in Absecon.”

Falivene said he is concerned that the workload forced on a combined board would be too much for its members to contend with during a growing economy.

“They are all volunteers and they have to find the time to study the applications and attend the meetings,” Falivene said. “How can we expect them to pay attention, and analyze all of the material if they have multiple applications?”

A stronger economy could force the board’s volunteers into a situation where they have to prepare to hear two or three applications in a single meeting, he said.

Falivene is also concerned that a combined Land Use Board would put too much power into the hands of the position of mayor if that person is allowed to select its members.

Falivene favors a plan that would enable the mayor to suggest Land Use Board members for council to vote on.

“That way you have seven people, who were elected by the citizens, deciding who is on the board,” Falivene said.

Currently, the mayor appoints city Planning Board members and City Council appoints Zoning Board members.

“The mayor would have to be willing to give up the ability to make appointments to the board,” Falivene said. “That’s one of his powers…posting members on the Planning Board.”


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