As I look back on 2022, I can definitively say that land developers and business owners are actively looking to recover from lost time and money since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.
I come to this conclusion based on my seat as the municipal manager for the Township of Lawrence. From early 2020 to early 2022, one aspect of my job decreased dramatically, and COVID-19 filled the void with new and different challenges. But the winds of change are upon us again, with developers and business owners acting with a sense of confidence in the future.
Whether we like it or not, Lawrence Township remains an appealing option to those seeking to invest their time, effort and money in their business pursuits. To some, that’s a good thing, and to those who view new and different things negatively, it isn’t.
What aspect of my job “decreased dramatically,” you ask? The answer is, meeting with property owners, developers and their professionals as they “pitch” their idea for a new “this or that” in our community. Judging by comments on the various social media sites, at public meetings, or to me directly while I am at and about in town, there seems to be a lack of understanding about the development process and the local government’s involvement in it.
So, I thought I would take a stab at giving a broad and general description of what typically happens before developers submit applications to the Zoning Board or Planning Board (with members of both boards appointed by our elected governing body—the members of council). Before a property owner or developer commits their time and money to a given project, more often than not, they will reach out to a local official (i.e., mayor, municipal manager or zoning officer) and request a meeting to get a sense of whether their idea would be received positively or not in the community. Usually, they have prepared concept plans and offer a general description of their vision.
Jim Parvesse (municipal engineer/zoning officer) and I take these meetings, because in our form of government (council-manager), the elected officials are part-time, and the mayor’s role is limited beyond the governing body’s collective and significant legislative power. We differ from Hamilton, Ewing, Trenton, Princeton, and others, because voters do not elect our mayor directly, and the mayor is not a full-time position.
Instead, the elected council members select the mayor (by a majority vote) to serve a two-year term. In addition, those same elected officials appoint the municipal manager to a full-time position to oversee the day-to-day operations of the municipal government, much like a chief executive officer in a private corporation.
As a result, it falls on the municipal manager and staff to take these meetings. They are called “courtesy meetings” and are not required by law. However, it is a good practice for the town and the developer to meet to discuss potential projects, because it is often where bad ideas die or potentially good ideas are improved before the developer submits an application for consideration by the planning or zoning board. There is no science to these meetings nor polls conducted in the community. We provide some honest and, at times, critical feedback that may guide the next steps taken.
Importantly, the township does not seek out land development within its borders; it is not a function of our government. What we (i.e., elected and appointed officials of our town) do is less direct. We work hard to make our community a desirable place to live, work and play and let the economics take care of the rest.
We are not “Big City USA” and don’t have an economic development department in our municipal operations. So, when developers call to meet with us, it is not a return call. They initiate it, and as a responsible government, we take the call and take the meeting no matter what. But here is the critical part, no decisions or agreements are EVER made between developers and municipal officials behind closed doors. It doesn’t happen here. Neither myself nor our engineer (mayor or council members) has the legal authority to approve or deny development applications. The development process is an open, public process that occurs at the Planning Board or the Zoning Board upon proper notice to the public, where all can participate and express an opinion before the appointed members vote to approve or deny applications based upon the facts and the law which they have taken an oath to abide.
And, here is the kicker—even if Jim or I (or the mayor or council Members) hate the development project for whatever reason (i.e., it’s too big, too loud, too much traffic, or we “don’t need another one of those,” etc.), the developer has the legal right to move forward and make the application before the Zoning Board or Planning Board (which I am a voting member of) for consideration.
When that happens, the community tends more often than not to support our negative feeling about the project, and they come out in droves to express their opinions. Also, it is common for us to meet several times with the same developer of a proposed project who works with us to implement the improvements we express are needed before they file their application.
Those are received better by the boards and the community because they are scaled-down and have the elements we value as a community. And sometimes, a project that we think is excellent for the community is met with strong opposition (usually by those living near the site). The board members earn their keep at those times by approving or rejecting the application. In the end, however, all should rest assured that we always follow the lawful process before development occurs in our community.
Kevin Nerwinski, a longtime resident of Lawrence, serves as Lawrence Township’s municipal manager.