Remote via Zoom, 7 PM
The meeting was called to order at 7:07 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
* CATHERINA SAWOSZCZYK
* CRAIG WILLIAMS, Vice Chair, Liaison to Land Use Board
* MARGARET "Peg" DISTASI
Absent was BONNIE TADRICK.
Approval of Minutes, January 18, 2021 Meeting
The minutes were approved by a vote of 3-0, with 1 abstention. Diane Wexler, Craig Williams, and Peg Distasi all voted to pass the minutes as submitted; Catherina Sawoszczyk abstained.
PUBLIC PARTICIPATION SESSION (Agenda Items Only)
Diane Wexler asked for a motion to open the meeting to public comments. Craig Williams and Peg Distasi made and seconded the motion, respectively.
Jessi Palladini began public remarks by expressing deep concern over the town's likely purchase of the Baldwin property on Black Creek Drive with municipal open space funds. She advised that the property was previously the subject of a DEP lawsuit, is known to be contaminated with toxic lead, and has been under remediation for at least 25 years. She warned the commissioners that any owners of this property, under a prior consent judgment, will be responsible for remediation in perpetuity-costing the town and town taxpayers untold amounts of money going forward if the sale were to be completed. Mrs. Palladini also mentioned that the DEP would be monitoring the Black Creek Drive site until 2029. She concluded her statement by asking why the town is considering the purchase, given this particular set of circumstances, and asked the commissioners to send a recommendation to township government advising them not to buy the property.
Diane Wexler thanked Mrs. Palladini for her input and promised that this issue would be revisited later in the meeting. She then asked for additional comments from the public. No more comments were offered at this time, so Diane asked for a motion to close the meeting to the public. Craig Williams and Peg Distasi made and seconded the motion, respectively. The meeting was then closed to the public.
LAND USE BOARD - LIAISON REPORT
Land Use Board Liaison Craig Williams said that the primary topic of discussion at the last Land Use Board meeting, other than reorganization, was an application by Suez Water to upgrade six of its facilities with permanent power generators, enabling them to continue supplying water during power outages. Craig stated that all of the fixtures would be powered by diesel fuel and therefore subject to monthly testing and evaluation. He mentioned that the generators would be fairly close to residential areas, but the company had promised that the fixtures would be enclosed and the noise would be minimal. Craig suggested that the new generators should not be much of a disturbance to the area residents, while providing a significant and important public service-providing water under adverse conditions. He then added the project would be relatively low impact, entailing little in the way of soil disturbance. Craig concluded his report by mentioning that there were no changes to Land Use Board leadership or personnel during the reorganization part of the meeting.
APPLICATIONS UNDER REVIEW
Car Wash (LU #12-21-10): Craig Williams reported that a new car wash is planned for Theta Drive. He said that the new establishment will be contained within a single lot, with all aspects of the project conforming to town center code. Peg Distasi inquired as to whether the car wash would be hooked up to the sewer system; Craig replied yes, and to public water as well. He said that he did not foresee a problem with the application, as the business would be a welcome addition to the part of town where it will be located.
Master Plan Re-Examination: Craig Williams said that the town's master plan is going to be re-evaluated in light of new state requirements, which include recently established rules and regulations on stormwater runoff and climate adaptability and resiliency.
Diane Wexler asked if the installation of charging stations for electric vehicles would be a part of the discussion; Craig replied that he did not think the review would cover this topic. Catherina Sawoszczyk recalled that the developers of a new gas station in the township were required to install a certain number of charging stations, and wondered if the proprietors of the car wash-also a new auto-related business-would be mandated to do the same. Craig said he did not see anything in the application that indicated any such a prerequisite for car washes. Peg Distasi asked if the commissioners could formally request an addition of charging stations to the plan when the application for the car wash is reviewed. Craig replied that the application would be reviewed at the Land Use Board meeting the next day, and he promised to bring it up at that time. Catherina asked if they could get a copy of the inclusion and exclusion criteria covering charging station requirements for new auto-related businesses; Craig agreed to ask for that documentation at the meeting as well.
Plastic Law/Ban: Diane Wexler began by reiterating that the new state law prohibiting the use of single-use plastics will take effect on May 4 of this year. She then mentioned that she had received PowerPoint slides and links on this topic from the Sussex County Chamber of Commerce, ones that she suggested they put up on the Vernon Township website. The other commissioners concurred. Peg Distasi took the opportunity to mention that she had contacted the local Chamber of Commerce about making a presentation on this subject to the group, but she hadn't heard back as of yet. Diane concluded this part of the discussion by indicating she would arrange to have the Chamber of Commerce materials added to the town website.
Helpful Environmental Hints for Homeowners: Diane Wexler reminded the other commissioners in attendance that the Vernon Community Garden has a Facebook page, one that she felt would be an excellent online location for their new column on helpful environmental tips for homeowners. Peg Distasi suggested that they actually might not be able to attract the desired audience on that page; she instead proposed that they find a way to carve out more space on the township website for this material, particularly on the front page where community notices are highlighted, on a regular basis. Craig Williams stated his belief that our materials need to be organized, placed, and sequenced in such a way that they are more easily accessible than they traditionally have been. Peg concurred, arguing that just placing links on the site are not good enough, and should be accompanied by graphics, pictures, written synopses, and other supporting information to help the reader navigate the material more effectively. Diane agreed to approach the town's administrative clerk, Irene Mills, about how they might go about getting better exposure and more comprehensive coverage of their activities on the township website.
Before concluding old business, the commissioners took the opportunity to address two prior items of business that were not on the official meeting agenda:
First, Peg Distasi briefed the others in attendance on the Silver Spruce illegal dumping situation, advising that the owner of the property in question, Joseph Wallace, is now facing further disciplinary action for non-compliance with the terms and requirements of the legal judgment against him. She suggested that Mr. Wallace realistically may be facing jail time as a result of his prolonged inaction and defiance.
Second, Craig Williams gave a brief update covering his work on a potential septic system repository. He said that he spoke to a member of Vernon's Municipal Utilities Authority (MUA), who informed him that a metered disposal portal is slated for construction in the township. Craig remarked that he did not have information about a timetable for completion, but suggested they begin work now to create a registry of septic system owners who would be willing to get regular service on their septic tanks in exchange for potential price reductions-thereby helping ensure enough septic waste for the dedicated collection program. Peg Distasi suggested that the township contact potential service providers and offer them a discount in the dumping if they come to the township to dispose of the waste rather than to other county collection sites. Craig said that this possibility is already part of the discussion. He stressed that if the township was able to establish a septic system repository of this kind, it would be an excellent development-with a tangible and significant positive impact on the town as a whole.
Baldwin Property: Diane Wexler began discussion on this topic by questioning what happened with the contract to buy the property, as she believed it had been cancelled by the town council at the last meeting. Peg Distasi replied that the mayor vetoed the ordinance that mandated the nullification of the contract. She added that the town council is continuing to seek ways to block the sale but-despite deep concerns that Vernon taxpayers will be stuck with a huge ongoing environmental expense-the contract still appears to be in the works.
Referencing background materials on this matter that Peg Distasi distributed prior to the meeting, Craig Williams clarified that the consent decree brokering a settlement between the Department of Environmental Protection and the defendants (Bob Baldwin's Transportation Inc., Texaco, Inc., and Peet Blokker, Inc.) and actually covered the entire Baldwin property, not just the piece that the township is attempting to buy for the purpose of completing a walking and biking trail.
Peg Distasi mentioned that only a small portion of this property has been certified as cleaned, while the property's groundwater has undergone filtration for fifteen years.
Craig Williams stated that the now-defunct Greenway Action Committee, which he once chaired, was involved with the planning of the new trail but was given no say in where it was to be located.
Diane Wexler inquired as to whether an open space committee had been formed to approve the allocation of the funds. Craig Williams replied that the town council is the open space committee, and that a discrete amount of funding for the purchase of the Baldwin property was approved by a previous town council. Diane mentioned that at one point the town was seriously considering forming a dedicated open space committee outside of the town council. Craig responded that the matter was dropped, and the formation of such a committee in the immediate future is not likely.
Peg Distasi reiterated the current town council's position, that the Vernon taxpayers should not be saddled with the legally mandated remediation costs of a contaminated property, and therefore the sale should be re-evaluated and/or abandoned. Craig questioned why those responsible for the contamination in the first place weren't being made to assume these expenses. Peg replied that the people responsible for the contamination did not do their due diligence with regard to remediation, and the heirs to the property only did the bare minimum. According to the legal judgment specified in the consent decree, the owners of the property were to be responsible for clean-up costs, so selling the land would absolve them of all of that substantial additional responsibility.
Catherina Sawoszczyk asked what the commission's role should be in advising the town council about the risks involved with the sale. Diane Wexler proposed that the most prudent course of action would be to draft a letter to the mayor and town council that each of them would sign, stressing their considered belief that the sale would be unwise. Peg Distasi maintained that they should make sure to focus exclusively on environmental considerations. Craig Williams argued that the commissioners should be given the opportunity to research the history and back story of the property with regard to contamination any time the town undertakes a land purchase. Peg took this a step further, suggesting that it is actually the commission's responsibility to do so.
Diane Wexler suggested that the by-passing of the commissioners in this and other relevant matters could give them an opening to revise the ordinance that created the commission, stipulating that the commissioners must complete an environmental background study of any properties the municipal government wishes to purchase. She then asked Craig Williams to draft the letter on the Baldwin transaction. Peg Distasi cautioned that the next town council meeting was coming up in less than a week, on February 28, so the commissioners would need to act quickly as a group to advocate for the abandonment of the sale on environmental grounds. Craig said that, while doing so may solve one problem, it does not address the greater issue of the town government marginalizing the commission on other important matters that have environmental concerns and consequences. Diane proposed that they work on these two things separately, tackling the more urgent and time-sensitive Black Creek/Baldwin situation first. The other commissioners concurred. Craig agreed to write the letter about the Baldwin property; Peg offered her assistance. Diane then recommended that Craig write the letter during the remainder of this meeting so the commissioners would not have to reconvene to approve the letter prior to the town council meeting on February 28. Craig then began work on the letter.
Bee Watering Stations: Please note that the bee watering stations and ANJEC grants were discussed in reverse order from what was specified on the meeting agenda.
Diane Wexler introduced the idea of creating bee watering stations in the spring. She said that one drawback is that the stations have to be cleaned-and the rocks that constitute a major part of these stations make that difficult-but otherwise the stations are a great idea. Diane proposed that they could be placed near flower beds and in other spots on municipal property; she then offered to contact the person who waters all of the plants in Vernon's public areas for more ideas and suggestions as to possible placements throughout town.
ANJEC Grants: The commissioners briefly discussed applying for ANJEC grants for the butterfly garden and pollinator garden projects. Catherina Sawoszczyk suggested that-despite the fact that the town has been planning to move the pollinator garden for some time (possibly to the Baldwin property should the sale go through)-they should no longer wait for this to happen to start work on the project, especially with the spring season now approaching. Peg Distasi and Diane Wexler concurred, with Peg advising that the town would likely keep the pollinator garden in its current location for two more years. Diane suggested that VEC Recording Secretary Leslie Boen might be able to help with grant writing.
At this point in the proceedings, Craig Williams announced that he had completed and sent the draft of the Baldwin letter via email to the other commissioners. The commissioners quickly reviewed the letter, with Diane Wexler reading the contents into the record.
The contents were as follows:
After reviewing the relevant documents regarding 8-20 Black Creek Drive in Vernon Township, also known as Block 141, Lot 12, we, the Environmental Commission, hereby recommend to the town council to not approve the purchase of this property for any purpose.
Diane Wexler advised that the letter should go to both the town council and the mayor. Peg Distasi agreed, further suggesting that the letter should be sent to each member of the council.
Peg Distasi made a motion to approve the letter; Catherina Sawoszczyk seconded it. Diane Wexler took a roll call vote. The letter was approved unanimously, 4-0.
Diane Wexler offered to type up the letter and distribute it to the relevant parties the next morning. Craig Williams recommended that the letter also be sent to the town clerk so that it could be entered into the official record. Peg Distasi suggested that the letter go to the business administrator as well.
PUBLIC PARTICIPATION-ANY VERNON ENVIRONMENT ITEM
Diane Wexler opened the meeting to public comments.
Jessi Palladini thanked the commissioners for taking the step of making a formal recommendation against the purchase of the Baldwin property. She noted that this situation is not at all a thing of the past, with the consent order only having been signed in November 2021 and the DEP monitoring the property until 2029. Mrs. Palladini remarked that no-one would buy or assume responsibility for a house on property known to be contaminated for 25 years-implying that this should be no different. She concluded by asserting that a number of laws have been violated in the pursuit of this contract, and that - according to state statute for Faulkner Act governments, town code, and even the Baldwin property purchase contract itself - the town council must approve the sale before it can go through, which to date has not been accomplished.
Ian Keebler, NJ watershed ambassador for the Wallkill watershed, briefly introduced himself and offered guidance to the commissioners in the watershed program's areas of expertise, including getting information out about invasive species and setting up pollinator gardens. He noted that the watershed ambassador program is part of AmeriCorps, and any collaboration between his organization and the commission would net the VEC two points towards Sustainable Jersey certification or re-certification. He concluded by offering to drop his contact information into the chat. The commissioners expressed their appreciation and encouraged him to do so.
With no additional members of the public coming forward to offer comments, Diane Wexler asked for a motion to close the meeting to the public. Craig Williams and Catherina Sawoszczyk made and seconded the motion, respectively.
Catherina Sawoszczyk said that she plans to contact Mr. Keebler about collaborating on a public information and education campaign for Vernon residents on water resources in the watershed. She then asked the other commissioners in attendance about the possibility of getting solar panels attached to the lamp posts throughout town, and questioned how they would go about doing that. Craig Williams replied that it depends on who actually owns the posts and the lights. Diane Wexler said that if a town resident asks for a light to be attached to a telephone pole, the power company will do the work but the resident has to pay for the electrical costs. Craig advised that adding solar panels would likely only entail solar installation costs, with no additional expenses. Catherina mentioned that some municipalities in larger areas actually pay for lighting and service the light poles. Craig suggested that Catherina speak to the town business administrator about this matter. Catherina offered to follow up and do further research into the possibility; Diane Wexler agreed to add the topic to next month's meeting agenda. Craig added that the commission should strive to do and accomplish highly visible things like this, to create a greater appreciation and awareness of the VEC in the community. Diane said that their work on solar panels, the septic system repository, and plastic ban awareness should attract positive attention from township residents.
Peg Distasi asked Diane Wexler to add the topic of electric vehicle charging stations to next month's agenda. Diane agreed. Peg mentioned that last year she and Diane had approached the mayor and business administrator about securing a grant covering costs associated with the installation of charging stations at the municipal building, where the town's fleet of electrical vehicles could charge and recharge overnight for free. She said that the idea went nowhere after that. Craig Williams stated that the town really needs to hire a grant writer in order for them to fully achieve their goals. He further suggested that they revisit the issue of establishing a solar parking area, with charging stations located underneath the solar canopy, and proposed that they contact the Sussex Borough Board of Education for more information on their solar parking lot program. Peg stressed that the commission really needs to press and stay on this issue, as solar panels could actually power a number of township facilities in the process, including the dog pound, town hall, the police station, the municipal DPW, and the senior citizen center. Craig offered to do a conceptual sketch of what a solar parking lot would look like in order to support this effort.
Before adjourning, the commissioners informed Jessi Palladini that they had voted on and approved the Baldwin letter and it would be sent out the next day.
Craig Williams made a motion to adjourn the meeting. Peg Distasi seconded the motion. Diane reminded the commissioners that the next meeting would be on March 22, 2022. The commissioners then agreed to adjourn the meeting via unanimous consent. The meeting was adjourned at 8:28 PM.
Respectfully submitted by Leslie Boen, Recording Secretary