STONE HARBOR – The Stone Harbor Council surprised the public at its Tuesday, Nov. 7, meeting with an announcement of plans to merge the Planning Board and the Zoning Board of Adjustment. Many members of the public who spoke at the meeting said they had just learned of the proposal within days of the meeting.
Councilwoman Jennifer Gensemer, chair of the Administration and Finance Committee, said the council would introduce an ordinance at its Tuesday, Nov. 21, meeting to merge the two boards. There has been no public discussion by council of such a proposal at any previous work session.
Gensemer further announced that the council would hold a special meeting in December to adopt the ordinance, which would then be in place at the beginning of 2024. She said the benefits of the move would be greater transparency and efficiency.
Council member Victor Foschini asked whether other communities in the county used a combined board. Gensemer said Avalon, Middle Township and the Wildwoods all did so. She was later corrected by a member of the public who pointed out that Middle Township has separate planning and zoning boards.
Mayor Judith Davies-Dunhour asked why this issue was “moving so fast.” She cautioned that the council has made the mistake of moving too quickly on complex issues that require more deliberation and public input.
The tension between the mayor and some members of council was again on display when Gensemer called the mayor’s comments “a political response,” adding that there are residents who “feel we do not move quickly enough.”
Davies-Dunhour argued that introducing such an ordinance in two weeks would not give adequate time for discussion by the council, review by members of the two boards and full disclosure to and informed comment from the public. She added that she was not against the idea and thought it worthy of exploration in a more deliberate manner.
Council member Bunny Parzych said she felt the council should hold a special session prior to the introduction on Nov. 21 for in-depth discussion. Again the mayor argued that there was nothing driving the process to move so quickly. “We don’t need a special meeting,” she said. “We just need to slow down.”
The public comment period at the meeting was almost totally focused on the issue of combining the boards, with most of the comment being against the proposal.
Tim Carney, recently elected to the council and set to join the body in January, said he was against the proposal. He urged the council not to rush into a reorganization of the boards. He said two questions needed to be answered: “Why do it at all? Why do it now?” Carney said the council would be making a mistake to allow “the calendar to make the decision.”
Former Mayor Suzanne Walters said the council needed to show more respect for the volunteers that serve on the planning and zoning boards. “You just kicked the Planning Board in the face,” she said, referring to the recent decision by the council to introduce an ordinance on side-yard setbacks that differed from the Planning Board’s recommendations.
Kat Laughlin, a member of the Zoning Board for seven years, angrily addressed the council. She said comments that this plan had been discussed with members of the two boards were “disingenuous,” adding, “I heard about this last night.”
Laughlin said that treating a “very complex” ordinance this way is “absurd.” She also pointed to the error Gensemer made when she said Middle Township has a combined board: “It is simply not true.” Urging that the council get some “vetted” facts, Laughlin said that Davies-Dunhour was “absolutely right” when she urged a more deliberate approach.
Referencing the visible tensions between some governing body members, Laughlin added that “the animosity among all of you is palpable, everyone in the room sees it.”
Others who spoke argued that the tasks of the zoning and planning boards are different and may not benefit from one combined board. They also urged careful analysis before a decision is made.
This was the second meeting in a row where public comment displayed serious disagreement between residents and the governing body. At the Tuesday, Oct. 17, meeting, public comments were focused on dissatisfaction with changes to the side-yard setback ordinance that originated with the council and not with the Planning Board. That meeting led to Parzych’s remarking on Nov. 7, “We heard you loud and clear,” just before the ordinance in question was tabled indefinitely.
A special meeting has been called for Friday, Nov. 17, at 4:30 p.m., with the sole agenda item being “Public Input on Zoning Issues.” Whether this special meeting is meant to address the question of combining the boards or to focus on the controversy surrounding lot grading and side-yard setback ordinances is unclear. The public notice on the borough’s website gives no further detail.
Contact the author, Vince Conti, at email@example.com.