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Ocean Planning Board Disallows Public Comment on Proposed Master Plan Update

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OCEAN TOWNSHIP: At the Nov. 9 council meeting, the town's governing body proposed a new Ordinance, 2303, a full update to the existing section of the town's Master Plan last revised a decade ago that met State requirements.

Mayor Siciliano and Council had decided and begun in early 2017 to review the entire town since much of the existing development is grandfathered and some zoning goes back a way, some even to before a present Master Plan had been put in place. The revision 2303 was offered as a First Introduction and sent on to planning for review and comment.

On Monday, Nov. 27 the planning board reviewed 2303 as part of its overall agenda, and, with a small addition suggested by Alternate Member John Duthie, the revision was deemed consistent with the existing Master Plan.

"Consistent" was stated at the meeting to be the charge for the PB to judge, and did not require other actions, such as public comment. Attorney Sanford Brown said the Board did not have to hear public comment since the meeting was not a usual application hearing. It was unique.

That surprised the 75 residents in the room. The meeting room was changed from the original smaller meeting/conference room upstairs where PB Caucus (workshop prep) meetings are regularly held. These deal with procedures before the public meeting, which usually convenes at 7 p.m.

Upstairs was too small for what was probably the expected larger public attendance, which is typically just a few residents, if any. Typically, just a few other interested parties attend.

Residents arrived at 7-ish and were directed by a door-posted sign to the main meeting room on floor one. The main room was set up with a microphone at the front, before the Board dais. The usual attorney/witness table for applicants was not there; the mic was instead. Residents waited. At 7:39 the Chairman John Verrilli opened the meeting with the memorialization of a complete case and referenced work in progress others, nothing being heard that night.

The meeting was recorded, as are public PB meetings since mayor and council have focused more and more on government transparency. The recording was not yet online as this post was written.

As asked by the Chairman, Mr. Brown read a summary of the 2303 content and asked Certified Planner Allisson Coffin, representing Board consultant James Higgins firm, to present/read the firm's conclusion advice on 2303. The conclusion was that no significant difference was forthcoming with the new 2303.

The Board took that to call for a vote, when a member of the audience went to the mike and addressed the Board. Mr. Brown read from a ruling procedure (sounding similar to Roberts Rules for running meetings) that the Board could allow the public to speak or not. It was a Chairman's decision, permitted but not required.

That started the public confusion and desire to be heard. It began reaction from the residents in the room, some calling aloud to be heard. One took the mic in the front of the room. Ohers tried to follow. Things got louder and less were hearing Brown's pleas to back away. He told them he may need to ask police to remove those who did not listen to directions to stop speaking.

The Board Attorney asked the crowd to stop speaking since the Chair had decided not to allow them to speak. He pointed to those speaking that he might ask the police to remove them from the room. That went on for almost 15 minutes.

Some trying to speak found confusion undoubtedly since the review of 2303 focused on the same new development property concept level plan to use the property on Highway 35 and Deal Road, from Logan to the highway in the west.

The 2303 change also does relate to that concept level pan, by Paramount, LLC but Mr. Brown and the Chairman insisted the decision the meeting must decide was on the effect of 2303 on the current Master Plan. The Deal Road - Highway 35 property section seemed to be in the minds of the residents who wished to speak. The Board directed those questions appropriately belong to the upcoming Council Meeting on December 7, where the 2303 ordinance would be revisited and perhaps public comment entertained.

One resident, Jackie Wenzel said she would get a group together for public voice on the matter. She said they were told by officials that the PB would take and answer questions, including when they asked at the Council meeting on Nov. 9. Ohers said they had been so advised by other town officials. Ms. Wenzel asked those interested in pursuing the matter to contact her at her online jw@jacquiwenzel.com .

Several groups formed in discussion after the meeting. Most were dissatisfied they could not speak, after believing they had been advised differently. Mr. Verrilli said he decided to not open discussion since the purpose of Board review was accomplished. Many seemed to feel that to not be allowed to speak was an incorrect way to get public feelings about an important matter that impacts all in some way or another, be it traffic, congestion, or development they might not see a need for The fact a specific application and detail plan not yet filed concept was able to be addressed.

The public took the setting to suggest they would speak. It looked as if the mic was for visitors. Chairman John Verrilli explained there would be a wait until 7:30 for the regular meeting. The not allowing came later in the procedures of the meeting, most felt. Reasons given by residents still did not change the decision to not allow speakers in the meeting.

The mater went back to council for its Dec. 7 meeting at Town Hall, 7:30, with the workshop at 7. The public welcome to both.

Ms. Wenzel asked for help to get a place like the high school. She believes there is a public interest in historical property, keeping the "gracious living" alive, natural resources protected, the green canopy healthy since its falling to below the State category of "suburban" to "urban" which has taxes and healthy environment at stake.

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