Mayor Jacobs vows to protect Bedminster’s ‘semi-rural’ character

BEDMINSTER TWP. – Mayor Larry Jacobs hailed the handling of recent development projects but warned of looming threats to the township’s “semi-rural” character as the Township Committee held its annual reorganization meeting on Wednesday, Jan. 4.

With the state poised to issue its next round of affordable housing mandates in 2025, some prospective developers “have approached us with visions of expanding multi-family opportunities into our rural areas and are disappointed when they do not get a favorable response,” Jacobs said.

“These developers are not going to go away quietly, there will be threats of builder’s remedy lawsuits,” he predicted. “We can wait and perhaps Trenton will try to fix this situation, or we can wait and let the courts decide. Those are not good options.”

The township has therefore engaged its professionals to anticipate its fourth-round obligations and to develop options that comply “that do not involve eroding rural zoning or sacrificing our commercial corridors,” he noted.

He said the township’s main challenges are to provide municipal services efficiently, keep pace with technology and the means of communicating with the public, develop zoning and affordable housing strategies that are consistent with the township’s character, and keep taxes low.

A long tradition of holding the annual reorganization at a venue offering food and drink, which was derailed by the pandemic, resumed at Fiddler’s Elbow County Club on Rattlesnake Bridge Road.

Most of the 75 or so people in attendance at Fiddler’s opted for the $50 dinner, and even those who didn’t were treated to free bottles of wine donated by a local winery.

Among the attending dignitaries was 23rd District state Sen. Doug Steinhardt, R-Somerset, Hunterdon, Warren, as well as Manville Borough Council President Joe Lukac and Raritan Borough Council President Nick Carra.

The five-member, all Republican governing body remained unchanged as Committeeman Doug Stevinson and Committeewoman Gina Fernandez, who won re-election in November, were sworn in to begin their third and second three-year terms, respectively.

They were re-seated along with Jacobs and Committee members R. Colin Hickey and Renee Mareski.

Jacobs was then formally chosen by his committee colleagues to serve a fifth straight one-year term as mayor for 2023.

‘Busy Year’

In reflecting on the past year, Jacobs said 2022 was a busy year on the human resources front, with officials spending hours reviewing resumes and conducting interviews.

The biggest moves both occurred in the fall when the committee promoted Frank Bernardo to police chief as Kevin Murray as director of public works.

He also praised the work of Township Administrator Robin Ray, saying she “exemplifies the Bedminster brand and sets the bar for that level of excellence and efficiency to the entire township staff.”

A key initiative was to start a new community garden at River Road Park, Jacobs said.

Boosted by a $300,000 Somerset County grant, it is expected to go the bid in the spring and have its first plantings in the fall.

Another major project, he said, involves repairs to the Miller Lane sewer pumping station. That effort is being funded by $1.47 million in government aid.

Internet upgrades for homes in The Hills housing development, which were facilitated by the township, might start by the end of the first quarter, Jacobs said. The upgrades are being installed by Altice Optimum.

The township’s annual Fall Fest returned to River Road Park for the first time in two years, and the Bedminster Farmers’ Market continued to grow as it gained a daily increase of nearly 200 attendees from the prior year, Jacobs said.

AT&T Relocation

On the commercial front, Jacobs noted that AT&T is leaving its massive office complex on Route 202-206 but will occupy the vacant former Mallinckrodt office complex up the road.

He and the committee are “pleased to keep AT&T in Bedminster and to retain all those jobs in town.”

As for the soon-to-be-vacant 1.1-million-square-foot AT&T complex, Jacobs said township officials completed a long-planned rezoning that should give the complex new life as “a multi-tenant, multi-use high-tech, life sciences campus.”

The rezoning “is not the end of our efforts,” he noted.

He said Somerset County, the state Economic Development Authority, the Governor’s Office, the state Office of Planning, Rutgers University and other agencies have all joined the township in seeking to “promote the re-use of that campus.”

“That property is our highest tax ratable and the Township Committee is dedicated to seeing it positioned as a world class facility,” her said.

In Pluckemin village, “run-down buildings are being demolished and new ones are going up,” Jacobs said.

The village has long needed a boost, he added, and “2023 will see new construction, new investment and new traffic improvements in Pluckemin.”

The local villages have “retained a semi-rural ‘Town and Country’ character because of years of strong planning efforts,” and “it is our job to foster and steward that brand,” he told the audience.

He said that is being done not by encroaching into the rural 10-acre zone, but by having new development “replace the existing out-of-date built environment.”

Jacobs concluded his remarks by challenging township boards to continue to increase their level of engagement and programming, bring in guest speakers, and work with other boards and possibly even other towns.

“The expectation should not just be attending a meeting but advancing a mission,” he said.

Voters Thanked

In keeping with tradition, the other members of the Township Committee also offered comments at the reorganization.

Stevinson and Fernandez both expressed gratitude for being re-elected last November.

“It’s truly an honor to have received your support,” said Stevinson.

Fernandez said she and her running mate were “truly grateful.” She also thanked several individual supporters.

With respect to the state of the township, Stevinson noted that the township ranked as the state’s third best town in which to live in the most recent edition of New Jersey Monthly Magazine.

He said also said that in spite of inflation, the 2022 municipal budget raised taxes by only 0.87 percent.

Hickey said committee members are “not exactly politicians but problem solvers.”

He said there are “no Democratic or Republican problems – just problems that need to be solved.”

Mareski spoke of board activities, saying the Environmental Commission hosted events like “Bat Night” and undertook an effort to clean the Bedminster Pond off Route 206.

Fernandez said the township’s boards and committees are “really the meat and potatoes of town.”

Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in The Bernardsville News.

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