Firehouse expansion under scrutiny
Town officials annoyed when NJMC mandates variances for door, BBQ pit
by Adriana Rambay Fernández
Reporter staff writer
Jul 29, 2012 | 2946 views | 0 0 comments | 9 9 recommendations | email to a friend | print
UNDER REVIEW – Expansion plans for the Washington Hook and Ladder firehouse, which houses this truck, are under review by the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission.
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Secaucus Mayor Michael Gonnelli on Wednesday told the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission (NJMC) during one of their meetings that he felt his town is being treated unfairly. He had received a letter saying the town should apply for variances to expand a firehouse. But Gonnelli encountered difficulty in speaking to individuals about the matter.

“I really believe the town of Secaucus has become the target of this commission,” said Gonnelli. “In fact I don’t think people are allowed to talk to me without Marcia’s approval.”

NJMC Executive Director Marcia Karrow said, “Your accusation, mayor, is ridiculous.”

Gonnelli claimed that there were at least seven individuals from NJMC who had told him they could not speak to him without approval from the executive director.

Karrow said that she had put the mayor in contact with Bernie Nangle, deputy executive director and that he had spoken to Sara Sundell, director of land use management.
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“Now you are moving in to a barbecue pit in the Secaucus fire department.”– Don Evanson
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Gonnelli feels the town is being targeted because he has been a vocal opponent of the current tax-sharing formula in which Secaucus has to contribute millions of dollars each year to a pool to help municipalities who can’t develop in the Meadowlands for environmental reasons.

The town hopes to build an expansion of Washington Hook and Ladder firehouse on County Avenue, which serves Xchange Place residential development and Harmon Cove. But the town was issued a letter July 19 that said they must apply for a number of variances by the NJMC.

The NJMC is a state commission that helps oversee development in several of the Meadowlands-area towns, including in 88 percent of Secaucus.

The proposed firehouse expansion, which costs approximately $1.4 million, will include a training headquarters, office space for the three department chiefs, and two new bays that will accommodate fire vehicles.

Backlash from tax sharing complaints?

“I feel like because I am getting up and representing my town with [tax sharing]…my community is suffering,” said Gonnelli.

In the same meeting, Gonnelli was successful in getting the NJMC to release a report that had been completed in April and that contains a number of other tax-sharing scenarios with variations on the formula percentage breakdowns (see briefs).

Gonnelli referenced an executive order issued by Gov. Chris Christie, which states that state agencies should follow “common sense principles” in reviewing municipal projects and adopt rules for waivers for any unduly burdensome regulations. He said he would go to the Governor to request help getting the firehouse built if the Commission fails to waive the variances or will not offer an expedient process to review the municipality’s applications before July 30, when the project will open up for bids.

Front door, trees, parking lot, and barbecue pit

The NJMC has asked the municipality to apply for variances to put a front door on the firehouse, to add a parking lot, to plant five trees, and to move a barbecue pit in a recreation area four feet away from the property line.

“We have to get a variance to put a door in front of that firehouse because the zone says ‘no front yard loading,’ ” said Gonnelli. He added that municipal public safety projects in the past have been exempt from such regulations.

“It really takes someone’s effort to really go through a municipal application like this to pick out things like a barbecue grill, parking for volunteers that don’t work there, [and] a firehouse with no front door,” he said.

Others spoke out on the issue in favor of the municipality.

“We got nothing from the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission over this past decade but a series of failed projects that had to be rethought, refunded, and re-spent,” said Secaucus resident Don Evanson who referred to landfills, the American Dream mega-mall and amusement project on Route 3, and Secaucus Junction train station. “And now you are moving in to a barbecue pit in the Secaucus Fire Department and we believe that the meddling at that level far exceeds the scope of the work of the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission.”

“When you have a project like Mayor Gonnelli’s it is the heart of the town,” said Fred J. Dressel, executive director of the municipal committee and former mayor of Moonachie. He recommended that the NJMC review municipal projects only for zoning before referring them to the local planning board for further review. “The local planning board knows what the town needs.”

After heading into closed session, the NJMC said that it would still require the municipality to file applications for the variances, but that it will expedite the approvals process to meet the July 30 deadline.

Adriana Rambay Fernández may be reached at afernandez@hudsonreporter.com.

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