State of the Township Address
January 4, 2022
Mayor Angie Devanney
Good evening. First, I want to welcome our newest members to the Township Council, John Foster and Paul Donnelly. I look forward to working with you both on your new committees and Township matters.
As I thought back on the last year, 2021, one of our greatest accomplishments is setting the stage for more green space as the Township is on the precipice of growth and expansion.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, “designing a green street in conjunction with neighboring community open space opportunities provides socio-economic benefits including an increase in local shopping and dining; ultimately investing in the local economy increases community engagement and instills greater pride in the community as a whole.”
To that end one of the most important events of 2021 was that the County of Union signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the owner of the Berkeley Caterers property. The 1.5-acre property will be saved in perpetuity as green space and cannot be developed in the future, which helps to balance the redevelopment in the downtown; and provide our residents with additional passive space for recreating. This property will forever serve as a gateway into Berkeley Heights and the County. This acquisition did not come easily. In early 2019, I joined a County Open Space meeting expressing the urgency of saving this parcel from development. Our hope is one day residents can walk, hike or bike from Berkeley Heights to Summit.
We also are welcoming FiServ who will relocate approximately 1500 employees to the 100 Connell building and create another 1500 jobs over the next 2-3 years.
As part of their agreement with the State Economic Development Authority for tax incentive to save and grow jobs in New Jersey, FiServ was required to provide a Community Benefit Agreement. In the end, I conveyed the Township’s commitment and need to develop the Lower Columbia Park area into a bustling active and passive recreation area. I am proud that FiServ will contribute $150,000 toward that goal-- in addition to the Connell Company’s donation of $250,000 over the next 5 years. This amounts to nearly a half a million dollars to jump start this project.
We must not overlook the refresh at Veteran’s Memorial Park where a new 23-foot Norway Spruce was planted, also donated by FiServ’s CEO. Generously, the spruce was transported, planted and will be professionally cared for by landscapers provided by FiServ’s CEO. We are truly gaining a community partner in Fiserv, in addition to new medium to high paying tech jobs right here in our backyard and 3,000 more patrons for our business community.
Focusing on the downtown area, which stands to be the hub of Berkeley Heights with the redevelopment occurring currently, Peppertown Park is also on the cusp of redevelopment with $300,000 in commitments. JMF Properties, the developers of Stratton House or the old Kings property, has pledged $100,000 as part of the amended redevelopment agreement with the Township, and $200,000 in 4 phases of $50,000 has been pledged by The Connell Company. This year, professionals began the engineering the drainage needed to make the redevelopment of this park possible.
We also anticipate the Mondelli Park project will be complete and ready for occupancy by the end of this month. The landscaping has been completed and the gazebo is scheduled for delivery at the end of this month. Upon completion, a Deed of Dedication will be officially delivered to the Township dedicating Mondelli Park in loving memory of Vito Mondelli. We have all been eagerly anticipated this dedication for many years.
Finally, the Connell Company is investing heavily in green space located at The Park that began with a beautiful trail system completed in 2021. So much more is to come with a playground, dog park, state-of-the-art pickleball courts and small field open and available to all Berkeley Heights residents.
Zoning changes for The Park that the Council put in motion in February will cause economic reverberations for decades to come as well as allowing for green space to be opened up to all Township residents. The launch of the grand opening of Round Table Studios, joined by 800 members of that facility, kicked off the new rezoning. In the 4th quarter 2021, Connell signed a long-term lease with Fiserv for building at 100 Connell with 428,000 square foot of space being repurposed for the Fortune 200 company. In early 2022, “The District” will seek approvals for 328 apartments and 100,000 square feet of retail, including a brewery, Biergarten, Taqueria and a duckpin bowling breaking ground in the 4th quarter of this year, with completion expected by 1st quarter 2024. Additionally, in the 3rd quarter of this year, site plans will be submitted for North Grove which includes a burger roadhouse restaurant, dog park and pickle ball courts with anticipated completion slated for 2023. Finally, the start of renovations of building #300 and #400 will begin at the 4th quarter of 2022 with completion anticipated by the 2nd quarter 2023. This phase includes a new Fieldhouse gym and spa with public memberships available.
While we are excited about the new burgeoning entertainment zone, ensuring our small businesses get the support they need to thrive within Berkeley Heights is paramount in an on-going global pandemic. To attract quality small businesses and restaurant to our downtown, we will showcase the amazing community of Berkeley Heights with a promotional video developed by our Economic Development Committee. The Township’s downtown corridor potential is vast as we witness new ownership at Indian cuisine Neelam’s restaurant, the launch of the new Argentinian Patria Station Café and the arrival of Italian Marino’s Fine Seafood in the last year.
We have worked arduously the ensure our new storefronts are filled with quality tenants and services. In 2021, the creation of the Technical Review Committee through the recommendation of our Economic Development Committee allows our professionals to review potential projects before submitting to our Planning or Zoning boards. This helps our smaller business save costs by not having to make changes a second time while staving off over-development.
This also applied to the mission of the Mt. Laurel Committee which was also created in 2021. This group of professionals, the Council President and me will help to continue to safeguard the Township from overdevelopment that could be triggered by not monitoring our affordable housing obligations. Our goal is a simple one: remain compliant for the next round of affordable housing in 2025 by seeing our current redevelopment project through to fruition.
As all this green space and economic development takes shape, we must also balance providing the tools our First Responders need to grow with our expanding community. In the coming year, I ask that we aid the Berkeley Heights Police Department to obtain funding for accreditation to demonstrate their top line professional training. According to law enforcement officials, “state accreditation programs are designed to help law enforcement agencies establish and maintain standards that represent current professional law enforcement practices; to increase the effectiveness and efficiency in the delivery of law enforcement services; and to establish standards that address and reduce liability for the agency and its members.”
Likewise, we must begin to look to the future by ensuring that funding is available in the Municipal Budget to hire a 28th police officer to help with traffic and community policing as we are about to welcome many more new residents with the completion of the movie theater project, as well as reaching 50% completion of our 55+ senior housing project.
With this growing soon-to-be senior population, evidenced from our Master Plan and Senior surveys, older adults are aging in place in Berkeley Heights. We began the work during the pandemic of making sure we had social programming for our seniors like bingo. Now is the time to expand those programs and look for resources to provide college courses through the Union County College senior scholars programs. Additionally, we will look for more ways to create multi-generational events so grandchildren, children and our seniors can enjoy together. And as always, we must dedicate ourselves to taking care taking care of our veterans as well as connecting them to county and state resources to assist their needs.
We remain dedicated to fiscal responsibility marked by our surplus reaching a 5-year high. Our reserve for uncollected taxes is now at a more realistic and conservative level. The Township is being guided by a 6-year, long-term capital plan set in motion by the Financial Planner we hired in 2019. As part of the plan, we went after delinquent taxes that had languished for years. We enacted the sewer connection fee ordinance passed in early 2020 which will generate over a million dollars to our surplus as the redevelopment projects begin construction. And finally, we have built up our reserves our reserves for potentially costly items such as sewer repairs over the last three years.
While fiscal issues are a top priority of the administration and Council, we are also doing the hard work of making sure everyone feels welcomed and included in our community. The Truth Community Healing & Inclusion Committee will set out to make our community even stronger. Our differences are important, but what we share brings us together. We know we have much to do. But it starts by keeping our promise to hire a Municipal Prosecutor who is one of the top municipal prosecutors in the state and will be empathetic to our residents when they need him most. Welcome to Moshood Muftau.
I submit to the members of the governing body, the business community and the residents of the Township, that the State of the Township is strong, and I look forward to working to making 2022 the year of recovery, normalcy, growth, prosperity and community connectedness.
Happy New Year to one and all.