The meeting was called to order at 7:03 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, February 22, 2022 Meeting
The minutes from the meeting on February 22, 2022 were approved by a unanimous consent vote.
PUBLIC PARTICIPATION SESSION (Agenda Items Only)
Diane Wexler opened the meeting to public comments. She then took the opportunity to introduce and welcome Kristin Wheaton, Vernon Municipal Utilities Authority board member, to the meeting. Ms. Wheaton thanked the commissioners for asking her to attend as an invited guest; she then mentioned she was looking forward to joining the conversation about a potential septic system metered disposal program, which was planned for later in the proceedings.
Upon conclusion of these introductory comments, no other members of the public came forward to discuss agenda items. Diane closed the initial public participation session, but then made Ms. Wheaton a panelist on the Zoom call so that she could speak freely during and throughout the relevant portions of the meeting.
LAND USE BOARD - LIAISON REPORT
Land Use Board Liaison Craig Williams said he was unable to attend the previous Land Use Board meeting due to a work conflict, but that he had been briefed on the proceedings. He mentioned that the Mountain Creek master plan was reexamined and presented at that time, noting a just a few minor changes that should not have any negative environmental ramifications for the township. Craig stated that Mountain Creek was basically planning to re-pave an existing parking lot and to make some targeted upgrades to improve the aesthetic appeal of the property. He then turned his attention to a new self-service car wash planned for the township center. He said that the project appears to be low impact, with little in the way of environmental consequences.
Catherina Sawoszczyk asked Craig if he had been able to find out from the Land Use Board about the requirements mandating that new auto-related businesses install electric vehicle charging stations, as well as any inclusion and exclusion criteria. Craig replied that he hadn't had a chance to ask, since he had not been able to attend the last meeting. He said that the charging station mandates for new auto-related businesses had actually been published roughly six months prior, so the commissioners should be able to locate the information pretty easily online. Catherina asked Craig if the owners of the gas station on the corner of Route 515 and Main Street were planning on installing charging stations; Craig responded that they are putting in two such stations, serving four cars at a time.
Craig next gave a brief summary of the annual review and updating of the town master plan, as well as the township annual report. He said there were no recommended alterations to the master plan based on last year's land use activities, but he did note that some minimal changes were incorporated-ones that will help the township come into compliance with new state requirements for climate change resiliency measures.
Craig concluded his remarks by reporting on the status of several applications under review by the Land Use Board. He said that the Raymond Little variance (LU#3-22-3) was not scheduled to be considered during the next meeting, but perhaps would be reviewed at the following meeting. Craig mentioned that the application simply consisted of a request for relief from home frontage requirements, due to the irregular shape of the owner's front yard. He then stated that the Waheguru Gas application (LU#3-22-2) for a convenience store addition project was at least temporarily withdrawn due to a procedural matter.
APPLICATIONS UNDER REVIEW
See Land Use Board Liaison Report.
Diane Wexler stated that she had forwarded links and videos on the new plastic ban for the front of the township website, but they had been rejected for placement. Diane said she would Charles Voelker with regard to the website and the importance of prioritizing and getting this information out to Vernon residents.
Septic Service Metered Disposal:
Craig Williams began by mentioning that he had previously reached out to the Vernon Municipal Utilities Authority with a series of questions about the possibility of a septic service metered disposal program for the town. He said that the MUA got back to him with a reply, stating that the idea had been discussed previously and was originally conceived for the pump station that is now being bonded for repairs (Pump Station #2). Craig noted, however, that the MUA ultimately determined this pump station to be a poor fit for the project. He said that the MUA identified another pump station (Pump Station #4) that would be more suitable, but this site would require input and cooperation from Mountain Creek and hasn't gone beyond the conceptualization phase of planning.
MUA Board Member Kristin Wheaton stated there are considerable difficulties involved in setting up a program like this. Ms. Wheaton mentioned that, in order to allow the disposal of high organic content material, the township would have to undergo a series of onerous permitting requirements through the DEP and the Sussex County MUA-and would need to invest in additional tankage. She also said that the township would likely require supplementary licensing and training to properly handle these kinds of operations.
According to Ms. Wheaton, during the original discussions of reconfiguring Pump Station #2 as a site for septic service metered disposal, another obstacle presented itself that halted any potential plans-a lack of responsiveness from Wind River Environmental, the company that currently services Vernon's pump stations. She said that, when all of these different factors were taken together, the MUA decided to go forward with just making repairs on the pump station for regular use, but noted that the station could be expanded in the future should this program be considered again down the road.
Ms. Wheaton next gave her general thoughts on putting in a transfer station for septage in the township, expressing her belief that it would not be a good idea at this time. She said that it would most certainly be met with formidable opposition from the Sussex County MUA, which enjoys a considerable revenue stream that would be reduced-if not taken away-with the additional transfer station in Vernon. She concluded that the idea may be a workable one at some point in the future, but the township needs to prepare for substantial hurdles and difficulties with the implementation process if and when they decide to go forward.
Peg Distasi mentioned that the Environmental Commission had originally envisioned a septic service metered disposal program as a way to get Vernon residents to service their septic tanks more regularly, with the benefit of decreasing the potential for lake enrichment and pollution of township waterways. Kristin Wheaton agreed that the lack of septic care and maintenance is a major environmental issue that needs to be addressed, suggesting that getting septic maintenance requirements on the books in Vernon might be a better alternate approach to the problem.
Craig Williams asked Kristin Wheaton if designating and designing a repository for the septic waste in town and then delivering it by truck to the Sussex County MUA would work just as well, helping the township offset costs and obligations related to its septic waste without incurring opposition from SCMUA. Ms. Wheaton said this was an unconventional approach but nonetheless a compelling idea that might warrant further deliberation.
Craig Williams said that he would prefer an approach that was less punitive than passing and establishing a town ordinance mandating regular septic waste maintenance-offering incentives rather than punishments. He suggested that perhaps the township could establish a septic system registry and then a co-op through which residents could get a discount every time they get their septic serviced. Peg Distasi proposed the idea of offering a tax credit in exchange for compliance with regular septic tank upkeep.
The Commissioners then briefly discussed what would be required to implement these different ideas. Peg Distasi inquired as to how to facilitate a partnership between the Vernon MUA and the Environmental Commission to shepherd the passage of an ordinance through the town council.
Catherina Sawoszczyk questioned what kinds of costs would be incurred by the town if Craig's idea to collect and then transport Vernon's septic waste to the Sussex County MUA were implemented. Craig Williams suggested that the establishment of a local septic waste collection point could ultimately result in cost savings for town residents if done properly, allowing for electronic tracking and metering through service providers. He said that the key is to make sure this program is a lower-cost solution for residents than each individual household going straight to SCMUA. Kristin Wheaton advised that a town-wide mandate might also yield cost savings as well, with an increase in the overall amount of town business helping to bring down prices for consumers. She also proposed that, by putting the job out for bid across the town and aggregating, Vernon might be able to get more affordable septic servicing for its residents than the individual households would get separately. Peg Distasi mentioned that the municipality had already discussed the possibility of putting together a rotation schedule for Vernon homes to have their septics pumped every three years, with considerable economic and environmental benefits for all township residents.
Diane Wexler suggested that Peg Distasi and Craig Williams set up a meeting with Kristin Wheaton to brainstorm and further flesh out some of these ideas. All three agreed to do so.
Blue Community: There was nothing to report at this time.
Charging Stations/Solar Panels:
Peg Distasi said that she brought up the subject of charging stations-and the cost savings that could be realized with electrification and greening of town facilities and car fleets-at the previous night's town budget meeting. She said that the township has done nothing with the presentation on charging stations and electric vehicles that she and Diane Wexler made to the mayor and business manager last year. Peg then suggested that they follow up by forwarding all of the work that they completed to the members of the town council for review. The commissioners vowed to not give up and to continue working on this issue.
Catherina Sawoszczyk mentioned that she spoke to Vernon Township Business Administrator Charles Voelker about the possibility of getting solar panels attached to the lamp posts throughout town. Mr. Voelker replied that typically these kinds of solar panel attachments are not placed to benefit the surrounding community but to collect electricity for the electric company. Catherina then brought up the prospect of using solar panels to power lighting for parking lots, parks, and other similar town properties. Mr. Voelker said that the voltage would be much too high to properly accommodate solar power in certain areas, like Maple Grange Park (which Craig Williams disputed). Mr. Voelker did, however, ask Catherina to draw up a cost analysis, looking at current lighting costs for these properties and determining what kinds of cost savings could potentially be derived from using solar panels for these purposes.
Craig Williams commented that the township should already have the details on what it currently costs to light these areas of town, as well as the demand for lighting and the frequency of use in these places. He said that, with this information in hand, they would be able to back design the lighting systems for these locations to determine how much solar power would be required-enabling them to derive a cost-benefit ratio. Craig concluded that Catherina's first step would be to contact Mr. Voelker again to get access to all of the township's in-house details on usage. Peg Distasi concurred. Diane Wexler suggested that it would be helpful for Catherina not to just get usage information in kilowatts, but also in dollars. She said that, as a commissioner doing official work for the town, Catherina should not need an OPRA (Open Public Records Act) request to access the documentation. Craig then recommended that Catherina get the usage information broken down by specific location if possible, while Peg proposed that Catherina obtain a six-month breakdown of costs and usage data for the analysis.
Catherina Sawoszczyk reported that she hadn't gotten an opportunity to follow up on her plan from last month to contact Ian Keebler, the NJ watershed ambassador for the Wallkill watershed. She said that her intention is to talk to him about putting together a local public information campaign about stream protection and maintenance on private property-with the ultimate goal of producing recommendations that could be turned into a series of binding regulations for passage by the town council. Diane Wexler said she would add this topic to the agenda for next month's meeting for review again at that time.
Diane Wexler commenced the discussion by expressing her concern over the prospect of relocating the pollinator garden to the polluted Baldwin property. Craig Williams suggested that it might not be too harmful for the plants and flowers to be relocated there; Peg Distasi countered that she had received negative feedback from the town gardeners, who had been working for years to enrich the soil in the garden and provide a healthy habitat for the plants and flowers, and would now have to start over again - at a considerable disadvantage. Craig reminded everybody that the township has no control over whether or not the garden is moved, since it is currently located on school board property, and the school board is looking to sell that property.
Peg Distasi recommended that the commission postpone work on the garden until plans for the move are more finalized, since it does not make sense to put a lot of care and effort into a garden that is just going to be uprooted and relocated anyway. Catherina Sawoszczyk disagreed, stating that the commission has been postponing this project for more than a year while waiting for a property sale that hasn't yet happened-and may or may not happen. Peg mentioned that the mayor had brought up the topic at the last town council meeting, stating that both the dog park and the community garden will indeed be moved to the Baldwin grounds once the property is established. Catherina inquired whether the Baldwin property is the now only place being considered for this type of garden; she mentioned that they had discussions about multiple locations-and the possibility of establishing more than one town garden-in previous meetings. Craig suggested that a historical township property might be a good location for another garden.
Catherina Sawoszczyk expressed her strong belief that the commission needs to move on planting at least one garden-the township is large enough to accommodate more than one anyway-in order to demonstrate accomplishment. Peg Distasi reminded the other commissioners that Jessi Palladini offered the use of the Vernon Historical Society's property at Maple Grange Park for such a purpose last year. Catherina said that once they get one garden established, it will be that much easier to relocate the current community garden when the time comes, since they will have been through the process once before.
Diane Wexler invited Jessi Palladini, who joined the call to participate in the second public commentary session, to speak up and give additional thoughts about possible locations for a butterfly/pollinator garden. Mrs. Palladini suggested property on Barrett Road that the Vernon Historical Society leases. Diane voiced her concern that this land is state-owned and not in an easily accessible, centralized location. She said that she preferred a spot at Maple Grange Park. Mrs. Palladini then proposed the front of Maple Grange, near the entrance, as a possibility. The commissioners concurred, with Craig also suggesting that the marsh across the road from the entrance would be a suitable and highly visible place for a butterfly/pollinator garden. Mrs. Palladini mentioned that the Barrett Road property already has a fenced-in garden that could be easily be adapted for these purposes. The commissioners thanked Mrs. Palladini for her suggestions, but agreed that the township-owned Maple Grange-area locations would be preferable, due to their high traffic, their high visibility, their lack of environmental issues, and the lack of permissions that would be required. Diane said that they wouldn't want to do any planting until the middle of May, so they should have enough time to work on planning, organizing, and laying the groundwork for the new garden. She agreed to add this project to next month's agenda for follow-up.
Catherina Sawoszczyk suggested that they reach out to the local Boy Scouts to identify Eagle Scout candidates who might want to take this on as a final project, since there will be a lot of preparation and manual labor involved. Craig offered to ask his brother-in-law, who knows quite a few Scouting people in the Barry Lakes area, for suggestions - and recommended that they open up the project to scouts of lesser ranks as well. Diane Wexler then proposed that they use the new pollinator garden as a site to implement Bonnie Tadrick's idea of establishing bee watering stations in the township. Peg Distasi concurred, suggesting that they reach out to the local Girl Scouts and get them to build the station for the new garden. Diane offered to recruit her granddaughter and fellow troop members for this purpose.
Before moving on to the second public participation session, Peg Distasi took the opportunity to reintroduce an idea that had been discussed and implemented previously, but was not on the official March meeting agenda. She brought up the possibility of holding a second annual Vernon spring cleanup day, asking residents to pick up the trash directly in front of their properties. After a brief discussion, the commissioners agreed to hold the event in conjunction with Earth Day on Saturday, April 23, 2022. Peg stressed that they would have to get something up on the township website quickly to give sufficient notice to town residents; Diane agreed to look for the copy from last year's event announcement so it could be quickly and easily adapted.
PUBLIC PARTICIPATION-ANY VERNON ENVIRONMENTAL ITEM
Diane Wexler opened the meeting to public comments.
Jessi Palladini took the opportunity to voice her strong opposition to the now-completed purchase of the Baldwin property, citing its well-documented history of contamination and the financial burden that taxpayers will have to incur for its remediation.
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 stated that it is a pleasure working with her fellow commissioners.
Catherina Sawoszczyk reminded everybody in attendance that last year's tree giveaway was in April, and asked if they were going to do this again for the township's Earth Day festivities. Diane replied yes, they would be tabling and doing the giveaway this year as well.
Craig Williams commented on how thorough and productive this meeting had been.
Craig Williams made a motion to adjourn the meeting. Catherina Sawoszczyk seconded the motion.
Diane reminded the commissioners that the next meeting would be on April 18, 2022. The commissioners then agreed to adjourn the meeting via unanimous consent. The meeting was adjourned at 8:27 PM.
Respectfully submitted by Leslie Boen, Recording Secretary