By Jennifer Kohlhepp, Managing Editor
The Cranbury candidates for Township Committee debated Tuesday night in the community room at Cranbury School.
Approximately 20 residents attended to forum, getting an opportunity to ask the candidates questions about their platforms. A League of Women Voters moderator oversaw the debate.
Incumbent Democrats James M. Taylor and David W. Cook face Republicans Fran McGovern and Sean Deverin in the November election. The top two vote-getters will earn three-year terms on the Township Committee.
Mayor Taylor, who is seeking a third term on the committee, grew up in Cranbury, is married and has three children. His family roots in the township extend back to the 1700s and he wants “to help the town remain special and unique.” During his first six years in office, he said he has helped the town preserve an additional 350 acres of farmland since 2009, has decreased the budget to lower than the 2009 budget and has helped reduce the town’s debt by $5 million. He is also a member of Cranbury Volunteer Fire Co.
Mr. Deverin has lived in town for 12 years and currently serves on the Zoning Board of Adjustment. He bought a house on Maplewood Avenue as an investment but wound up falling in love with the town. He has two children and currently lives on Prospect Street. He got involved in the community when a development project threatened the safety of the street he used to live on. With a master’s degree in biochemistry and a master’s in business administration, he said he takes an analytical and critical-minded thinking approach to issues. He also said he wants to get the community involved early on in decision-making processes to impact the outcome of important issues in the town.
Mr. Cook, who has been on the committee for six years, has lived in town since 1966. His family moved to Cranbury when he was 4 years old. He has two children that grew up in Cranbury, one who is currently 19 years old and one who is a senior in high school. He said Cranbury “has a great past and a great current” and that he wants to continue to serve into the future. Building on his two terms of service, Mr. Cook said he wants to continue keeping Cranbury fiscally sound, focusing on capital budget expenditures and pursuing ratables. He said he has a passion for serving.
Mr. McGovern, who serves on the Zoning Board of Adjustment, has four children and has lived in town for eight years. He is a community association attorney for boards that operate private residential communities. He said he is running to give Cranbury the opportunies for choice and new blood. An advocate for transparency in government, he said he has concerns that some of the township’s subcommittees may have too much influence on the Township Committee.
The candidates each gave their views on affordable housing in town.
Mr. Cook said he does not have a problem with affordable only the scale of it. He said the township is in the process of determining the number of affordable housing units it must develop going forward to be in compliance with state regulations. The town’s plan is currently before a county judge to be certified.
“Whether you believe in (affordable housing) or not, it’s here,” Mr. Cook said.
Mr. McGovern asked the philosophical question if it’s right to have affordable housing mixed in with $1 million homes and said “generally it’s not.” He also said the issue comes down to planning and he would rather work with cooperative developers who meet the town’s affordable housing needs than having larger developers come in and “jam something down our throat.”
Mayor Taylor said the number of units the town must develop in the future has been in flux over recent years and that the town currently has a plan being reviewed by the judge assigned to review county municipalities’ affordable housing plans. He said the town could pursue the development of group homes, possibly for veterans, to help fulfill the town’s affordable housing obligation. Cranbury has been of the opinion that 10 percent of a new development should be affordable housing but that opinion is not shared by surrounding towns, he said.
Mr. Deverin said towns need to have a mix of housing and that affordable housing needs to be integrated in the community. He said there are only a certain number of developable lots left in Cranbury and that the township needs to continue to receive input from the Cranbury Housing Authority, which oversees the town’s affordable housing, regarding the use of the remaining lots.
The candidates were asked what they could promise residents and what unique skills they would bring to the Township Committee.
Mr. McGovern said he could not promise anything as someone who is not an incumbent candidate. He said he would have to learn about and deliberate on all of the issues presented. As a community association attorney, he said, he deals with lots of “wacky issues” that arise and he is good at dealing with them.
“I pride myself in handling them in such a way that people don’t kill each other,” he said.
The mayor said he couldn’t promise anything because things, like the economy, change frequently. He said he could set goals like those he set when he first ran for office and can measure his success against those goals. When it comes to his unique skills, he said as a father and volunteer in a variety of areas in the community, he is gaining residents’ input on a daily basis and can use that input in the decision-making process.
Mr. Deverin said he could promise that he would give his opinion on anything asked at any given moment as a township committeeman and that his opinion would evolve “given the data.” He said his unique skills are not taking data at face value but being able to dig deep into it to draw out conclusions, negotiating and leading.
Mr. Cook said he has a unique awareness that nothing can be accomplished in a vacuum and that “you have to play well in the sandbox.” A committeeman has to work with residents and township professionals as well as with “larger entities to make them look at Cranbury.” He said he has the ability to work with local, county and state officials when it comes to getting things accomplished in and for the town.
When it came to a discussion about speeding, Mayor Taylor said speeding is a huge issue on Main Street. He said there is an email alert system that residents can use to let the police department know of speeding issues in their areas of town. He said the town has three officers on duty at all times and they issued 150 speeding tickets last month. He said the town did recently lose its traffic bureau but that police are patrolling speeding in certain areas of town, which he did not want to divulge.
Mr. Cook said certain areas on Main Street are pretty bad when it comes to speeding but he said putting in speed bumps could complicate matters such as plowing.
“The idea of trying to please everybody is rough,” he said.
Mr. McGovern said it typically comes down to NIMBY (not in my backyard) when it comes to using implements that would reduce speeding. He said homeowners near such implements often complain of the noise of cars hitting them. However, he said, homeowners associations he works with often have success with removable speed bumps. The town could also narrow the pathway for cars by extending curbs to slow traffic, he said.
The town could be more aggressive when it comes to patrolling speeding, Mr. Deverin said. He said he used to warn his friends about the speed patrols in town but doesn’t feel like that anymore. He said the town must be punitive in its ticket writing and that the only way to slow traffic is to hit speeders in their pockets to get them to slow down.
To bolster commercial development in town, Mr. Cook said the town must look at its zoning and encourage different uses that would allow for various types of businesses to open.
Mr. McGovern said the town must look at its Main Street and decide what’s viable and what’s not, but has to be careful not to “rubber stamp” business applications to create a viable downtown district.
Mr. Deverin said the town should simplify its application fee process so the costs to open a business are the same across the board and not exorbitant.
Mayor Taylor said the township has been more proactive in welcoming new businesses and has been giving out proclamations to new business owners and holding ribbon-cuttings to bring attention to new stores. He said he has also been working with a local assemblyman who would like the state to implement incentives including state aid for mom-and-pop shops to open.
To conclude, Mr. McGovern said he is running to give residents a choice and so that there wouldn’t be empty chairs at the debate table. Regardless of whether he wins the election, he said he is not going anywhere and will continue to serve in any capacity he can in town.
Mr. Cook said the town can’t function in a vacuum and that he would like the opportunity to continue to work at a local, county and state level to preserve the way the town is now and to protect it going forward.
Mr. Deverin said he would work really hard as a member of the Township Committee because he loves the town and has respect for its history and what is has to offer. He also said his background has given him unique and inclusive decision-making skills.
The mayor said he would like to build on his last two terms and the education they have given him.
“An educated Township Committee is in the town’s best interest for the affordable housing issues and everything else before us,” he said.
By Jennifer Kohlhepp, Managing Editor