EMERSON, N.J. — Nine members from Emersonians, a Facebook page , stepped off the screen and into real life to talk through the transformations their borough is undergoing.
Council President Chris Knoller joined them this week to offer guidance on some issues. But, above all, to listen.
“My vision is of a community coming together,” said Ed Bueti, page administrator and forum organizer.
Bueti's vision is one that includes government, businesses, commercial property owners and residents.
In addition to Knoller and Bueti, those who gathered in person were: Laurie Akers, Michael Esqueu, Dot Haight, Jean Kosits, Jill Manell McGuire, and Corey Melillo.
Phoning in were Brenda Van Malden and Alisha Wallace.
The group wanted to carve out a space where it could respectfully talk and articulate its concerns over the future of Emerson.
Coldwell Banker in Hillsdale offered a neutral meeting place.
The Emersonians feel their voices are not necessarily being taken into consideration at official meetings.
On and off their Facebook page, what’s happening in the borough is being referred to as “the mayor’s dream,” a reference to Mayor Lou Lamatina.
There’s plenty going on and plenty to talk about:
- the Kinderkamack Road Shared Service Improvement Project;
- the proposed downtown four-story, mixed use JMF Properties redevelopment project;
- a PILOT (Payment In Lieu Of Taxes) arrangement for JMF;
- an impending Borough Council vote Tuesday on whether to make Block 419 downtown into a zone in which properties can be condemned;
- the need for the borough to provide as as-yet undesignated number of affordable housing units;
- plans to destroy, renovate or add to municipal government buildings, including Emerson’s borough hall, a Works Progress Administration building that opened in 1939.
“So much is dictated by things way beyond Emerson,” Kosits said. “The question is, how can Emerson manage what’s out of its control?”
Affordable housing quotas, for instance. Setting them involves the Fair Share Housing Center and the state Supreme Court.
Kosits sees local boards almost as a kind of mediator between the people and larger forces.
She also understands the urgency of the moment and says it’s no wonder so much is happening at once.
“My family has been here since 1957 when there was lots of open space,” Kosits said.
“No affordable housing was built then. We’ve just kicked the can down the road.”
What emerged from the gathering were two strong emotional threads woven among all the issues.
One was a fierce love of Emerson and a respect for its character, especially because of its geographic positioning as the “Gateway to the Pascack Valley.”
The second was sheer fear: the groups is afraid that residents and businesses are losing self-determination.
They want to be captains of their own destiny and don’t want to abdicate Emerson’s decision-making power to any other entity.
Not to a developer.
Not to government mandates.
Not to their own leaders.
Not at all.
“We could actually be pushed out of our town because of too-high taxes,” said Van Malden.
She cited additional children in borough schools – children bound to come with JMF’s four-story project.
Linked to an agreement on the JMF project are the issues of affordable housing since it includes affordable units; a PILOT arrangement; and the creation of a zone in which the Borough Council could condemn certain property to make way for the buildings.
“Condemnation is expensive,” Knoller said. “Nobody’s looking to it.”
But, the group said, the very thought of building four stories feels fundamentally wrong.
A fourth story, some said, is not in keeping with the character of the town they love.
“That gigantic building should not be what people see as they enter the Pascack Valley,” Wallace said.
Others feel a bit sick at the idea of threatening business owners in a whole zone with condemnation.
“Why would we allow condemnation and higher heights beyond Block 419? Why not just look at the buildings in blight?” Bueti asked.
“Why do we have to scare all those people?”
While he doesn’t mind three or four stories on one side of Kinderkamack Road to allow for the JMF project, he added, he doesn’t like the idea that the same could occur on the other side of the street.
Too many high buildings, some group members agreed, will start giving their quaint so-called “Family Town” the feel of a city.
In the meantime, McGuire said that, to her, invoking condemnation at all feels like Emerson’s own governing body is accommodating the developer over the residents.
What sticks in Haight’s craw, though, is the PILOT agreement, referencing an arrangement under which JMF would not pay land taxes.
Rather, it would pay a lump sum, over 30 years, that would, Knoller explained, go up or down, depending on the company’s rental income at the site.
“Thirty years?” Akers said. “I’m going to be dead before that PILOT ends.”
Such a longtime financial effect should have gone to referendum, Van Malden said.
“I want more talk about things that involve taxes and residents,” Melillo said.
McGuire has taken up the mantle to preserve borough hall on a separate Facebook page, Emerson, NJ Borough Hall Preservation Effort .
While the mayor has recently expressed public support for preserving the historic building, she said she has received mixed messages from the administration.
Emerson, incorporated in 1903, is a town of 7,600 people.
The bottom line, Van Malden said, is that all of Emerson – residents, businesspeople and public officials alike – need to pause today and ask themselves, “What do we want Emerson to be in 20 years?”
Because that, in essence, is what all the issues are about.