BEDMINSTER TWP. – Quality of life issues and if they are being adequately addressed are the main themes of a contest for a three-year Township Committee term in the general election on Tuesday, Nov. 7.
On the ballot are Republican incumbent R. Colin Hickey of Desiree Court and Democrat Lawrence McShane of Wendover Court in The Hills housing development.
The five-member Township Committee has been all-Republican for the last nine years. Still, there has been a Democrat on the local ballot for 22 straight years – easily the longest streak in the Somerset Hills, with the party scoring upset victories in 2005 and 2011.
But in recent years, several Democrats who ran were not well known locally and were not seen at Township Committee meetings.
Both the Republican and Democratic candidates responded to questionnaires from The Bernardsville News seeking information about their background and their positions on issues.
Hickey, 58, has served on the committee since August 2017. He has been a township resident for 31 years, spending the first 15 years in the Stone Run section of The Hills development.
He works as an independent consultant and venture partner. He previously worked for AT&T in various management capacities, and as a senior executive and founder of multiple start-ups in the technology sector.
He said his experience in the technology and utility industry “brings a unique perspective” to the committee. “I understand not only how the infrastructure works, but more importantly, how larger organizations assess capital investment opportunities.”
McShane, 49, has lived in The Hills for 16 years.
He works as a marketing director and previously worked in marketing, strategy and finance.
“My background is in management in the pharma and chemical industries, and I have worked in finance,” he said. “I understand how to solve problems within a budget, because I do that every day.”
Hickey cited numerous accomplishments on the committee, including maintaining low taxes, addressing persistent power outages in The Hills and elsewhere, spearheading an effort to upgrade Altice Internet service in The Hills, successfully fighting water use rate increases, and improving communication with residents through information technology upgrades.
According to Hickey, the township’s main challenges include working with utility companies to make necessary infrastructure investments; ensuring land management policies support both preservation and economic health; and maintaining the viability of the township’s business corridor and villages.
McShane, however, said the township has continuing infrastructure problems, with examples including “constant power outages, poor quality Internet service, and difficult traffic patterns.”
Although Hickey said the committee has prodded Jersey Central Power & Light (JCP&L) to make infrastructure improvements, McShane said more work is needed and residents are frustrated.
McShane also questioned the work with Altice. “Where is the transparency and communication around the Internet service deal?” he asked. “Strengthening the monopoly for an historically bad service provider is the wrong way to go. We need more competition, not a monopoly.”
Hickey, in response, said, “Only someone uninvolved could oppose a project that is a transformational upgrade to our local infrastructure.”
He said that with providers like Altice owning the cable equipment, any new competitor would need to build similar equipment from scratch, making competition unlikely.
With respect to the deals, he said he facilitated public meetings between Altice and the 21 homeowners’ associations in The Hills.
“I only wish Mr. McShane had taken the opportunity to attend his own neighborhood board meeting or a Township Committee meeting to better understand the communications industry, the available options and the actions being pursued by these bodies to mutually address a long-standing issue,” Hickey said.
With respect to local traffic, McShane said it is “very real, and about to get worse.”
“Development at Liberty Corner, Bedminster One, and planned developments on 202/206 will all contribute huge increases in traffic in Bedminster, especially between Hills Drive and Fresh Market,” he said. He said peak hour backups already occur on highway ramps and Route 202-206.
There is also dangerous traffic on Hills Drive,” he added. He said office workers and others “use Hills Drive as a shortcut and drive aggressively. The crosswalks are dangerous, and there is no police presence. Accidents are not uncommon.
“It seems to many that the Township Committee has shown no interest in these areas,” McShane said. “Bedminster needs to commission a traffic study to figure out real solutions.”
Hickey said that while Routes 202 and 206 are state highways, the township has worked with the state Department of Transportation (DOT) on safety measures, such as additional signage, roadway markings and signal improvements at the River Road and Hills Drive intersections.
Also, he said, “recognizing that many of the traffic delays in the areas adjacent to the Hills are caused by traffic back-ups in Pluckemin, we have worked closely with our own traffic engineers and the DOT to pursue dramatic improvements to the Washington Valley/Burnt Mills Road intersection.”
Looming improvements include “the installation of new signal heads and traffic sensing equipment, realignment of the intersection geometry, the addition of a peripheral ring road and the redesign of the queuing lanes to alleviate traffic back-ups,” Hickey said. He said they are expected to improve intersection efficiency by more than 50 percent.
“These improvements will begin within the next 12 months and will be made at no taxpayer expense,” he added.
Another issue was the local economy.
Hickey touted the township’s rezoning of the recently vacated former AT&T complex on Route 202-206. He said it will help attract life sciences and high-tech users while prohibiting warehouses.
The committee is currently focused on Pluckemin Village, he noted. He said that in spite of some business investments, the village had begun to look tired.
The committee passed a property maintenance ordinance that recently led to the removal of some unsightly buildings, he said. It is now working with business owners on “re-imagining” what the village could be, with better pedestrian access from The Hills being a possibility, he said.
McShane drew attention to vacancies in The Hills Village Center, saying “the travel agency is gone, the sushi place and Subway are gone, the Caldwell Banker building, Carriage House building and former Chinese restaurant are empty.”
“With the loss of these businesses, there are fewer services available to the residents of Bedminster and the Hills and people have to travel to other towns,” he said. “We need a plan to attract new businesses.”
“A green way to help with that would be to put EV charging stations in the Hills Village Center, driving commerce to the area from 287 and 78,” he said. “The Township Committee needs to be involved in solutions and incentives.”
When it comes to communicating with the public, Hickey said improvements have included real-time and recorded committee meetings online, up-to-the-minute updates via Bedminster Alert, and an online payment system for local property and sewer taxes.
McShane said the committee still needs a “better presence” with the community.
“I envision a monthly series of meet-and-greets or Town Hall events at Hills clubhouses and other local venues to hear concerns and communicate progress,” he said.
As for the election, Hickey said local politics shouldn’t be a partisan vote.
“At a municipal level, we don’t encounter uniquely Democrat problems or Republican problems, just problems that need to be resolved,” he said. “I embrace the philosophy that as a public servant, I work for the residents, regardless of political affiliation.”
McShane saw the situation differently, saying the “Republican incumbents clearly do not want Democrats to be involved in any aspect of governing Bedminster.”
Hickey disputed that. “If you were to look at the composition of the volunteer committees and commissions in Bedminster, you would see there are individuals serving from every political party,” he said. “There is no political affiliation test on the volunteer form.”
Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in The Bernardsville News.