A recent press release by the Sierra Club of NJ regarding the City of Lambertville included a number of serious inaccuracies that called into question the trustworthiness of the administration and City Council. We are endeavoring to correct the record by laying out the facts below.
To say we are using the pandemic emergency as a way to expedite any plan or process is simply not true. Here are the facts: (1) Lambertville City Council is scheduled to consider a resolution endorsing an amended affordable housing settlement agreement with Fair Share Housing at its April 23rd meeting after the resolution was introduced at a previous public Council meeting and was the subject of a public hearing at the Planning Board in February; (2) the City is following state guidance on virtual public meetings and has implemented several effective measures to ensure all residents can participate via phone, computer, and, if needed, can submit comments by mail or email to be read into the record; and, (3) the City initiated a conversation about community development in February 2020 and will continue to engage the community on this topic throughout the year before decisions on municipal facilities are made.
The City introduced options for community development early this year to begin a public conversation about how to address several competing challenges facing Lambertville: (a) a structural deficit and long-term debt many years in the making; (b) city facilities that require significant investment to continue providing basic services, let alone expanded services; and, (c) state-mandated affordable housing obligations that must be met on a strict timeline.
These issues and this conversation began well before any of us could have imagined the new reality we find ourselves in as a result of the Coronavirus. We understand that residents are concerned about their taxes – we are too. The residents of Lambertville are on the hook to pay for the substantial debt incurred over nearly a decade along with maintaining our existing facilities one way or another. City Council is exploring ways to ease that burden. Our goal is to identify opportunities to expand the tax base through smart, appropriate, and aesthetically pleasing redevelopment so we can increase ratables and limit tax increases as much as possible. Creating new ratables while also meeting our affordable housing obligations is one of the ways we are pursuing to address our budget challenges and limit tax increases.
We have slowed the community development process as a result of evolving guidance from the state on how to conduct public business during the pandemic and out of concern for ensuring Lambertville residents can be part of it. We are currently establishing a Community Advisory Team to guide community engagement on these issues, organizing charrette-style meetings in town, and developing other strategies and tools for a community-wide conversation. Because some of these strategies must be delayed or altered given the current crisis, we understand that any decision making on a community development plan will also need to be postponed.
The immediate matter before City Council is another step of many in meeting our affordable housing obligations. We not only have a state-mandated obligation to do so, but a moral one. Lambertville has a multi-year history of trying to find a solution to our affordable housing needs. The plan we are pursuing now comes after more than a year of trying unsuccessfully to implement the plan agreed to by the previous administration. We heard the community when residents pushed back against many of the key elements of the previous affordable housing plan. Community feedback was integral to our ruling out several potential affordable housing sites throughout the city. We have been working to share information with the public about this complex and often confusing process, which has changed significantly in recent years and is now overseen by the courts and has more serious consequences for not complying with state mandates than it once did. We recently developed an affordable housing webpage on our website with timelines detailing previous and current efforts. We have also been answering questions on this topic at our public meetings and in an FAQ document published online. Based on community requests, we are also planning to host a webinar to provide information on affordable housing and answer resident questions.
We understand there remains some skepticism, concern, and confusion about affordable housing and community development in Lambertville. We know some residents see links between approvals to move forward on the Police site and an eventual consolidated municipal building. However, the only municipal facility we are obligated to relocate as a result of moving ahead with the Police site as a future site for affordable housing is the Police Headquarters. It is also important to note that the Police Headquarters will not close or move any time soon – it will be many months before the City would be prepared to sell the property. There are several additional steps necessary for the City to take before the Police site can be sold, particularly with the public input process we are creating. We have committed publicly and repeatedly that the City is in the very early phases of considering a potential new consolidated municipal facility and that the process to consider such a facility will include significant public input. We stand by that commitment. Moving ahead with the Police site for affordable housing does not necessitate a consolidated municipal building.
Finally, the City of Lambertville is doing everything we can to foster public participation in government despite the limitations imposed by the current public health crisis. Our first virtual meeting on April 7th had over 70 participants. The City provided notice online and on the bulletin board at City Hall. We also shared the meeting information through our email listserv and Swift911 calls that are going out twice a week during the pandemic. As always, given our small, tight-knit town, residents who need assistance accessing the virtual meetings can reach out to the City Clerk and Deputy City Clerk for help by calling 609.397.0110. Residents who are unable to attend virtual meetings can email or mail written statements to the City Clerk that can be read into the public record at meetings, just as they were able to when the meetings were in-person. Councilwoman Julia Taylor offered during the April 7, 2020 meeting to be a conduit for suggestions from the public about how we can better facilitate access to virtual meetings. She can be reached at email@example.com.
Our governing body is committed to doing the best we can to engage the community and clearly explain these complex issues, and we are committed to learning from the public about how we can do better. It is important that we all remember that we are neighbors in this together. Our goal with this letter, and with the detailed information provided on our website and in public meetings, is to help clear up confusion and foster community dialog based on facts.
Council President Beth Asaro
Councilman Ward Sanders
Councilwoman Julia Taylor
Councilwoman Madeline Urbish