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Friday, December 18, 2015

Cedar Brook Park improvements bicycle-kicked to State

A bicycle-kick in soccer is a spectacular play in which
the kicker, in mid-air and paralell to the ground,
kicks the ball over his or her head in a downward slant to another player.

Plainfield Planning Board attorney Michele Donato's final meeting on Thursday was an endurance match unlike any other she has seen. Thursday's meeting marked the end of a 30-year run for the highly respected land use attorney.

You might be forgiven for thinking that she was refereeing a futbol match as she had to step in several  times in the course of the meeting to separate quarreling players and enforce the rules.

The subject matter was the Planning Board's capital project review of Union County's proposed improvements to Cedar Brook Park, which include two new artificial turf fields for soccer and football, drainage improvements, night lighting, fencing, bleachers and sidewalk and parking improvements.

The County team, captained by Assistant Union County Counsel Kevin Campbell, seemed to have learned several lessons from its bumpy start at the Historic Preservation Commission (HPC) hearing (see my post on that meeting here).

Last night's meeting began with an aerial view of the park, orienting Board members to the proposed work in relation to nearby streets and landmarks (Score!). The presentation also included copies of historic maps prepared by the Olmsted firm in 1922 and 1928 showing active recreational use (Score!). There were, as well, several detailed tinted sheets showing the position of the fields, lighting and drainage work (Score!). All of this much improved the presentation.

These pluses were marred by less than convincing testimony concerning the present condition of the fields (overdramatized by Campbell, IMHO), unsupported assertions about the national shift toward night programming in recreation, and the highly suspect 'expertise' of one witness regarding Olmsted parks.

Board members engaged in lively questioning of the Union County team and it emerged that there were many concerns -- among them the night lighting, a permanent scoreboard, the question of fencing, and removal of trees integral to the Olmsted plan.

When it came time for public comment, Chairperson Ron Scott Bey invited HPC chair Bill Michelson to the table to report the HPC's recommendation. In a letter distributed to Board members at the meeting, Michelson reported that the HPC had declined to issue a Certificate of Appropriateness as the County had not completed answering questions posed by the HPC or supplying further information that was requested.

When pressed by Board attorney Donato whether the letter represented the actions and conclusions of the HPC, Michelson said that it contained his expansions and explanations of the HPC's concerns but was not formally adopted by the HPC.

At several points when Michelson was at the table, Campbell attempted to interject. His assertion was that Michelson has a conflict of interest because he represents a group which is opposed to improvements being proposed by the County for its Rahway River Park.

Donato ruled that the Board was only receiving the letter from Michelson on behalf of the HPC and was not ruling on the question of a conflict of interest.

Donato read from a NJ Supreme Court opinion that underscored that community concerns must be taken into account by an applicant even though the Planning Board's review and recommendation are not binding.

Then, in a bicycle-kick, she noted that in order to proceed with work, the County would need a Certificate of Appropriateness. Since the park is also on the State and National Registers of Historic Places, that meant that a review at the State level was also required. (She also pointed out that if any federal money was being spent, that would invoke a review at the national level also.)

At length, Board member Billy Toth framed (with Donato's help) a lengthy, detailed resolution outlining the Planning Board's review and concerns. That motion was passed, 8-1.

I left at the three-hour mark as the Board prepared to fĂȘte Donato with well-deserved refreshments.

Michele, we all thank you for your years of dedicated (and patient!) service to the City of Plainfield and wish you well wherever you go and whatever you do!

  -- Dan Damon [follow]

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