The meeting was called to order at 7:04 PM by Chair Diane Wexler.
Diane read the Statement of Compliance. She then led the Commissioners in the pledge of allegiance and salute to the flag.
Roll call was taken for attendance - present were:
• DIANE WEXLER, Chair
• BONNIE TADRICK
• CATHERINA SAWOSZCZYK
• CRAIG WILLIAMS, Vice Chair, Liaison to Land Use Board
• MARGARET DISTASI
Approval of Minutes, March 22, 2022 Meeting
Craig Williams made a motion to accept the minutes from the previous meeting as written. Peg Distasi seconded the motion. The minutes from the meeting on March 22, 2022 were then approved by a unanimous consent vote.
PUBLIC PARTICIPATION SESSION (Agenda Items Only)
Diane Wexler opened the meeting to public comments. No members of the public were present or came forward to speak, so Diane immediately closed this portion of the meeting
LAND USE BOARD - LIAISON REPORT
Land Use Board Liaison Craig Williams reported on a number of developments with the Land Use Board. He began by reviewing an annual update from Mountain Creek that took place at the last meeting. Craig said that Mountain Creek submitted a "Snow Creek" application to upgrade an existing Mountain Creek parking lot across Route 94 from the premises, with the goal of improving both the aesthetic appeal of the property and the flow of traffic in the area. He stated that the project was low impact, with no environmental considerations for the Commission to take under advisement.
Craig next mentioned that Dunkin' Donuts had submitted an application to change their signage from "Dunkin' Donuts" to "Dunkin," in keeping with a shift in brand identity. He said that this project would involve only aesthetic changes and therefore would not have any impact or ramifications for the local environment.
Craig said that the Land Use Board also reviewed the Raymond Little variance (LU#3-22-3) at this meeting. He stated that the application was a request for relief from home frontage requirements because of the front yard's irregular shape, with the only environmental concerns being property runoff issues that the owner and township engineer were encouraged to work out together. Craig concluded his report by informing the group that the application for this variance had been accepted by the Land Use Board.
Peg Distasi took the opportunity to ask Craig about the status of the gas station project slated for the old post office complex, citing a lack of progress. Craig answered that one gas station project had been temporarily shelved because there was an issue with the application, with the potential of revisiting it some time in the future. He clarified that the one planned for the corner of Main Street and Route 515 was still active, with that application already approved and a resulting lawsuit from competitors withdrawn. Craig said that, in order to make the project come to full fruition, the applicant - with permission from the township - would have to widen the road a bit on Main Street to allow for the safe and expedient entry of larger vehicles into the parking lot, but stressed that there were no sticking points with any other aspect of the planned development (including the four electric charging stations and the proposed convenience store). Peg wondered why the project hadn't yet moved forward, given the various green lights given to the application. Craig replied that the removal of litigation in this matter from the courts may help jump-start development.
Peg mentioned that she had heard that the state infrastructure funding coming their way was going to be earmarked for the installation of piping and running water facilities to the new gas station. Craig said that he had no knowledge of this being the case. Peg then remarked that she previously asked the Vernon Township Municipal Utility Authority (MUA) what they were planning to do with the new infrastructure funds, totaling $1.75 million, and an MUA representative mentioned that the funds would likely not be under their jurisdiction at all, but would probably be allocated by the township for the purpose of bringing water to the town center area. Craig noted that the provision of water and sewer in the town center is allowed for in the township master plan, but making things happen on more than just a conceptual level is quite another matter altogether. Peg questioned whether $1.75 million was going to be enough to complete a water infrastructure project of this enormity and scope.
APPLICATIONS UNDER REVIEW - There were no applications under review for discussion at this time.
Septic Service Metered Disposal: Craig Williams said that he had been in contact with Kristin Wheaton, a Vernon MUA board member who spoke at the March 22 Environmental Commission meeting, and gave her a synopsis of what was discussed and the conclusions they had drawn at that time. According to Craig, Ms. Wheaton concurred with his assessments. He said that they agreed in theory on the possibility of creating a septic service metered disposal program via Pump Station #4 that serves as a cost offset to the town's obligations to the Sussex County Municipal Utility Authority. He cautioned, however, that they would have to enter a complex set of negotiations with both Mountain Creek and the Sussex County MUA before this idea could move beyond the conceptualization stage.
Craig then again raised the idea of developing a township septic waste repository, for the purpose of capturing and designating waste that could then be delivered by truck to the SCMUA. He suggested that a reservoir for septic service product could be established across the street from the Vernon Department of Public Works (DPW). Craig proposed that establishing dedicated tanks and reservoirs would help more easily facilitate a septic metering and crediting program that could lower the septic servicing costs of residents. Peg Distasi mentioned that there are computer programs out there that can assist with tracking outflow and metering, but cautioned that such a program might be too pricey and expensive for the township to afford. Both Craig and Diane Wexler disagreed, with Craig stating that these programs are actually quite affordable and Diane suggesting that they are not a big deal to implement.
Peg Distasi voiced her support for putting in a holding tank and reservoir near the DPW as possibly the most cost-effective and therefore the most desirable way to tackle this issue. Both Craig Williams and Diane Wexler agreed that this plan would be quite achievable. Peg added that there has already been some interest in a collaborative servicing program on the back end among area homeowners, mentioning that a Vernon resident just posted on social media that he contacted a septic pumping company and bargained with them to service 10 homes on the same day for half the price. Craig agreed with Peg that establishing a formal program in the township would be a "win-win" situation-yielding considerable cost-saving benefits for both the town and its citizens-and well worth pursuing.
Charging Stations/Solar Panels/Carports: Craig Williams stated that he recently held a Zoom meeting with the town business administrator, the mayor, and representatives from YSG Solar to discuss what the township could effectively do to add a substantial solar component into the town energy mix. He said that the business administrator and mayor were receptive to the idea of using state funding programs and other such inducements to begin conversion to solar power. Craig stated that one idea they discussed would be to identify and establish areas in town that would be dedicated to solar installations, with the understanding that the energy generated at these sites would be sent to the grid. According to Craig, the plan would be to effectively lease these solar zones to the township, with the lease agreement acting as the primary driver of electrical cost reductions to town taxpayers. Township residents, in turn, could form a co-op and agree to purchase their energy from the resulting entity, which would allow them to receive a credit on their electrical bill. Craig mentioned that individual homeowners would not need to have solar panels installed on their properties to take advantage of the energy cost savings.
Craig next mentioned that they explored a second option that was somewhat similar to the first, but not in quite as much detail. In this scenario, there would be town solar installations but the energy would not be sent to the grid - it would be used by individuals to reduce their individual electrical costs. He said, however, that the primary pitch of the solar representatives centered around the leasing idea. Craig then said that the solar reps requested access to a year's worth of town electrical bills to assess, with an analysis of these costs and how solar might be deployed to generate cost savings promised to the township by May 5.
Craig concluded his remarks on this topic by advising that the idea of pursuing grants for the purchase of electric vehicles and charging stations are still very much on the table in the township.
Plug-In Electric Vehicle Law No. 2252: Diane Wexler brought up S2252, the Plug-In Electric Vehicle Law, which was passed and signed into law by Governor Murphy in January 2020. She said the law mandates that 25% of all places of employment in the state-of which Vernon Township is one-will be required to have charging stations by December 31, 2025, with the numbers escalating further after that date. DIane maintained cautious optimism that Vernon would easily meet the township's part of this benchmark, given Craig's previous progress report. She mentioned that township charging stations could easily be fashioned out of solar-paneled carports and canopies, a possibility the Commissioners discussed in previous meetings. Craig Williams suggested that these charging stations could be developed in tandem with the conversion of light-duty municipal fleets to EVs, but noted that the deadline for that is five years later, in 2030.
Diane Wexler said that, if the solar negotiations in the township continue to go favorably, the Commissioners may not have to worry about reciting and publicizing this law to prompt further action in the municipality. Craig Williams proposed that they wait and see what the May 5 report from YSG Solar yields, but cautioned that they may still have to make the case for jump-starting the process of installing charging stations - using the mandates from this law - at an upcoming town council meeting. The rest of the Commissioners concurred.
Catherina Sawoszczyk inquired whether or not the report on electric vehicles and electrification of township facilities the Commissioners completed and presented last year had prompted the township to purchase EVs. Craig Williams said that he was not aware of any purchases but was hopeful that, considering the levels of time, consideration, and attention given to the solar issue at the YSG Solar Zoom meeting, perhaps this might change going forward. Diane Wexler mentioned that a good place to start, again, would be the non-emergency vehicles in the town fleet, with the police cars and other heavy-duty vehicles converted later, when the technology was there to more reliably allow for rapid-fire acceleration. Peg Distasi reminded the other Commissioners about the Ford Explorer EV designed just for police departments, which had all of the speed capabilities that would be needed for law enforcement use.
Catherina Sawoszczyk questioned where Vernon stands on solar conversion compared to its neighbors. Craig Williams said that the only close municipality on which he has directly seen information is Hopatcong Borough, one of YSG's clients. Diane Wexler mentioned that Vo-Tech, which has solar panels at the school, has not realized the cost benefits from its solar installations that were promised. Craig suggested that this might be because Vo-Tech was putting all of its solar-generated energy right back into the grid and expecting something in return, which didn't quite pan out as expected. He maintained that they might want to further explore the idea of direct offset instead of leasing, which would allow the township to be more self-sufficient and potentially generate more cost-savings.
Peg Distasi wondered if representatives from Mountain Creek would meet with the Commissioners to discuss how their private solar array works for them and what benefits they reap from the arrangement. Craig Williams referred to a number of Vernon businesses that also have their own solar facilities and could be approached in a fact-finding capacity, including the fire department, school board, and Crystal Springs resort. Peg proposed that they schedule meetings with some of these businesses and organizations to obtain more information, Diane Wexler agreed to approach the fire department and follow up with others after they receive the YSG solar report on May 5.
Community Street Clean Up (1st Saturday in May): Diane Wexler mentioned that she had gotten information about the upcoming community street clean up, ultimately scheduled this year for May 7, on the front page of the township website, with Peg Distasi noting that the link had already cycled down to page two. Diane said she would arrange to have the link once again placed on the front page and to publicize the event under Community News in the Advertiser News North.
Peg Distasi inquired about cleaning up Canistear Road, which needs some work but may not be fully under Vernon's jurisdiction. Diane suggested that the problems on that road might be due to people not securing their garbage properly from bears. Peg also said that she felt the road was too dangerous for people to participate safely. The other Commissioners concurred. Peg wondered if anti-litter signage that explicitly advertises fines for non-compliance would be sufficient for this road, and agreed to research this issue with the DPW for the next meeting.
Septic System Registry Co-Op for Discounted Pumping: Diane Wexler returned to the issue of septic metering, revisiting a previous suggestion that the township establish a septic system eligibility registry for discounted servicing. Craig Williams maintained that this would be a complicated matter, proposing that an ordinance mandating regular servicing may need to be in place before moving forward, but suggested that the idea might organically become part of the mix once the infrastructure and planning for septic metering are worked out.
Butterfly/Pollinator Garden: Diane Wexler began by reporting that she made contact with the leader of the local Girl Scout troop, who offered the troop's assistance with the pollinator garden project and with bee watering stations. Peg suggested that they get together with the troop leader to put together a plan of action; Diane agreed to follow up with her on this matter. Craig Williams said that he might be able to provide seeds in bulk for the project.
Diane Wexler next asked Craig Williams to direct her specifically to the potential Maple Grange garden location the group identified during the last meeting, as she would have to take Recreation Director Mishelle Downtain, who would be the point person in the municipal government to oversee the arrangements, there to scout and survey the site. Craig indicated that the community property is located directly across the street from the ancillary emergency services entrance to the park and is beyond the wetlands buffer zone. Diane maintained that the planting of flowers in this area would not infringe upon riparian rights. The other Commissioners concurred. Craig stressed that we should not add another layer of complexity to this process by crossing buffer lines, so he expressed his strong belief that the Commissioners should take great pains not to do so. Peg Distasi suggested that the Commissioners might want to reach out to local beekeepers and offer to locate their hives in the new pollinator garden. Craig implied that other types of pollinators might be preferable, for obvious reasons.
Catherina Sawoszczyk inquired about the design of the garden and whether or not it would be fenced in or open. Craig Williams said he didn't think there was any necessity for a fence, but there should be a design plan. Diane Wexler said that she wants to see the site before they draw up such a plan, but disagreed about the fencing, suggesting there may need to be demarcations that set the garden off so that people don't walk through it and landscapers don't mow over it. Craig said that landscapers would likely not be mowing in that area. Peg Distasi countered that, in order to make the garden a real attraction, they may need to clear paths, install walking trails, and do regular maintenance - requiring ongoing and intentional land management in that area. Craig proposed that this garden could be also street-adjacent rather than carved out of the property's interior. The Commissioners agreed to take field trips in pairs to survey the property in order to find the most appropriate spot and to figure out how to best proceed.
Catherina Sawoszczyk questioned where the funding for the pollinator garden would be coming from, given the most recent budget cuts. The Commissioners concluded that, between grants from grant-making institutions, individual contributions, and volunteer assistance, they should be able to piece something together quite nicely and easily.
Bonnie Tadrick asked if we were planning to establish more mature plants in the garden rather than just planting seeds and seedlings. Craig Williams suggested that the success of a pollinator garden would necessarily rely heavily on immature plants. Diane Wexler countered that mature trees and perennial plants would actually be of real benefit to the garden. Bonnie suggested that they do a mix of both, and offered to purchase and donate the mature plants to the garden. Peg Distasi proposed that they contact Heaven Hill Farm for a discount and reach out to community-minded business owners in the township for financial assistance to the project. Peg also recommended that they add rose and butterfly bushes and other deer-resistant plants to the mix for the garden. Catherina Sawoszczyk mentioned that they would also need a sign to indicate both the presence of the garden and who was responsible for donating and making it happen. Peg Distasi offered to make the sign with her husband.
Grant Money for Lake Communities: Diane Wexler announced that Peg Distasi had found a new source of grant money for lake communities to help keep their waters clean, but noted that the funds were earmarked for public lakes and Vernon only has private lakes. Peg said that a number of people from the Highland Lakes area were still going to bring this up to their board, with the possibility of them trying to secure funding-specifically for infrastructure repairs, dredging, and algae control-from this program regardless.
PUBLIC PARTICIPATION-ANY VERNON ENVIRONMENTAL ITEM
Diane Wexler asked for a motion to open up the meeting to public participation. Craig Williams made the motion; Catherina Sawoszczyk seconded the motion. Diane then opened the floor to public comment.
Jessi Palladini began by stating that the Vernon Historical Society had offered on three separate occasions to secure grants for township improvement projects, environmental and otherwise, but had received no interest or response. Craig Williams asked specifically to whom the historical society had directed their offer. Mrs. Palladini replied that she made the offer three times to the mayor and town council at public meetings, and nothing ever came of it. She mentioned that Vernon is now home to a National Scenic Byway, which makes the town more eligible for a treasure trove of new improvement grants. Craig told Mrs. Palladini that she should feel free to contact the Environmental Commissioners directly when such opportunities arise, and they would be happy to follow up and collaborate with her to make them happen. Mrs. Palladini reported that letters of intent to pursue National Scenic Byway grants were due the previous day, but the grant applications themselves are not due until the end of May and the letters of intent aren't strictly required. She added that the Vernon Historical Society did put in a letter of intent for the creation of a scenic byway app and for picnic tables along the byway.
Mrs. Palladini stated that if the Environmental Commissioners had some ideas for projects that could be funded with these grants, they should let her know as soon as possible and she would apply on their behalf. Peg Distasi proposed that the Commissioners meet up in the next week, scope out potential sites for improvement that would fit the parameters of the grant, and get back to Mrs. Palladini with a proposal as soon as possible. The other Commissioners agreed and thanked Mrs. Palladini for her input and interest, promising to work with her to make something happen.
Mrs. Palladini then spoke about the construction on Black Creek Drive, asserting that Vernon residents should be given a better sense of what is going on there. She said that she previously brought up the matter with town leadership; she stated she was met both with silence and with confusing accounts of what is being done doing there and why. Peg Distasi concurred with Mrs. Palladini's assessment of the situation, saying that she had brought it up recently as well and got the same type of feedback. Craig Williams agreed to check out the situation. The Commissioners agreed that the township owes the public a more honest, forthright, and direct appraisal of the activity on Black Creek Drive.
Upon the conclusion of Mrs. Palladini's remarks, no additional members of the public came forward to offer comments. Diane Wexler then closed the meeting to the public.
Peg Distasi mentioned that she had seen a news segment about a young boy who established a battery recycling bin at his school, and was wondering if the Environmental Commission wanted to do something similar at town hall. Craig Williams replied that the town recycling center had a section dedicated to battery recycling, so a bin at the municipal building would not be necessary. Peg then suggested they do more to promote battery recycling in general and this battery recycling center in particular. The Commissioners concurred. Peg recommended this as a topic for the Commission's helpful environmental hints and tips online. Diane mentioned that she was still trying to negotiate placement details with the town webmaster, who is in the process of revamping the municipal website.
Craig Williams made a motion to adjourn the meeting. Peg Distasi seconded the motion. The commissioners then agreed to adjourn the meeting via unanimous consent. The meeting was adjourned at 8:41 PM.
Respectfully submitted by Leslie Boen, Recording Secretary