All boarded up
Vacancies on zoning, housing boards could slow city business, residents’ renovations
by Dean DeChiaro
Reporter staff writer
Jul 14, 2013 | 5667 views | 0 0 comments | 139 139 recommendations | email to a friend | print

Residents and elected officials alike have raised concerns over vacancies on various governmental boards, including the Zoning Board of Adjustments and the Hoboken Housing Authority (HHA) Board of Commissioners. The Zoning Board, which usually consists of 11 members (seven regulars and four alternates), is missing four members, meaning the board may not always have enough members to vote on residents’ housing renovations or developers’ applications. And the terms of three of the remaining seven members of the zoning board are set to expire on Dec. 31.

Meanwhile, the seven-member Housing Authority board, which oversees the city’s public housing projects, has a different problem. Controversy has ensued over a seat that has been retained by the former board chairman, who is on “holdover” status after moving to Pennsylvania. A potential new member has come before the City Council twice in order to apply to take the slot, but has been rejected by one faction of the council.

Most city boards are appointed by the council, which itself is currently missing a member and is divided 4-4 between two factions. One faction generally supports Mayor Dawn Zimmer, and one faction is generally against. Thus, the political division on the council has made it difficult to approve new members of other boards.

The zoning board needs positive votes from at least five of seven members to approve a variance, which is essentially permission for a construction project to deviate from Hoboken’s municipal construction and zoning codes.
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“The people of Hoboken deserve to have a full board of zoning commissioners.” – Jay Boucher
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“Lots of applicants have rescinded their applications or are purposely delaying them because you need five people to grant a variance, but very often only five board members are at the meetings,” said Mayor Dawn Zimmer last week. “They’re afraid that they won’t have a fair shot at gathering the necessary votes.”

Like the zoning board, the Hoboken Housing Authority has a big influence on local development. The HHA board oversees 1,776 units of public housing and has been divided over a proposal called Vision 20/20 that would demolish and rebuild several of the buildings. The City Council members also are divided about the project, with the mayor’s allies hesitant to express any approval of it at this stage. The council also has been divided over a public housing resident, Barbara Reyes, who has appeared before the council to apply for the open slot. Reyes is allied with the mayor’s opponents and supports Vision 20/20.

Warring council affects other boards

In a letter to the editor printed in last weekend’s edition of the Hoboken Reporter, former zoning board member Jay Boucher, who said he was priced out of Hoboken and moved to Jersey City, lamented the lack of appointments to his board due to the gridlocked City Council.

“The Zoning Board was already burdened by an overload of applications and the lack of replacement members caused a strain on scheduling,” he wrote. “The people of Hoboken deserve to have a full board of zoning commissioners who argue for or against the numerous variances that being applied for. When the board is unable to reach a quorum it wastes money and time.”

What’s wrong with Barbara?

The Hoboken Housing Authority Board of Commissioners is only short one member, but there has been much drama both at the Housing Authority meetings and at the City Council meetings.

The drama over the vacancy on the housing board began when Jake Stuiver, the former board chairman and an ally of Zimmer, ended his five-year term on May 3. According to municipal and state law, the vacancy must be filled by the City Council within 90 days of Stuiver stepping down, though he is allowed to serve on the board as a “holdover” until his seat is properly filled.

It also came out in April that Stuiver had moved to Pennsylvania, and is still driving to Hoboken from Pennsylvania for monthly HHA meetings, a move that his political opponents have decried. However, apparently, there is no law stipulating that he has to leave the board if he moves out of town.

Reyes, an HHA resident, has applied for the unpaid open slot, but the Zimmer allies on the council have voted against her over concerns that she would not remain objective in her oversight of HHA Executive Director Carmelo Garcia or the Vision 20/20 plan. Reyes has touted her familiarity with the projects as well as her community service work.

With the 90-day deadline to replace Stuiver fast-approaching, a spokesman for the DCA said last week that the department is prepared to step in should the council fail to appoint a replacement, and he noted that the situation is a rare occurrence.

“The Local Redevelopment and Housing Law [specifically N.J.S.A. 40A:12A-17- Creation of Housing Authority] lays out a clear process for how the DCA will fill a vacancy on the Hoboken Housing Authority should the city of Hoboken not make the necessary appointment before the Aug. 3 deadline,” said Sean Conner, the spokesman.

Currently, the housing board consists of Chairman Rob Davis III, Vice Chairman Jean Rodriguez, Judith Burrell, Greg Lincoln, David Mello, who is also a city councilman-at-large allied with Zimmer, and Eduardo Gonzalez, who happens to be running for Mello’s council seat in the upcoming November elections. Only Gonzalez’s term is up to be filled this year.

Four zoning members short

The Zoning Board of Adjustments, which approves “variances” or adjustments to the city’s construction laws on a case-by-case basis, holds significant sway over the future of development in Hoboken, with several major projects in the pipeline. People like Boucher say that it needs all hands on deck.

Zimmer said that the city has looked into the legality of the having a member of the Planning Board, which oversees the general direction and philosophical basis for construction in Hoboken, act as a floater between the boards.

Several residents at council meetings have complained that the council cannot appoint zoning board members because of the council’s political divisions. Possible appointees haven’t even made it as far as Reyes did with the HHA board. No zoning board candidate has come before the council in many months.

In the past, mayors of Hoboken were the ones approving the zoning members, with the consent of the council. As a councilwoman, Zimmer proposed an ordinance that would require the council to approve members instead.

Zimmer said that she is glad for the change.

“We were smart about it, I think,” she said. “The zoning board used to give out variances like candy, and then [former Mayor Peter] Cammarano was arrested for taking cash bribes from [someone posing as a] developer who needed variances. The zoning board plays a huge role.”

The board’s current members are James Aibel, Elliot Greene, John Branciforte, Michael DeFusco, Joseph Crimmins, and Nancy Pincus. The terms of Branciforte, Aibel, and Pincus are up at the end of this year.

With major development issues currently in play, including a massive redevelopment of NJ Transit land along Observer Highway, several officials have said that the city needs a fully-staffed zoning board as soon as possible. But will it happen?

“I absolutely feel the need to fill these vacancies, and [my colleagues and I] do plan on getting people on the board, but I’m less than optimistic about the council coming to a consensus,” said Councilman-at-Large Ravi Bhalla last week.

Dean DeChiaro may be reached at deand@hudsonreporter.com

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