Without any meaningful effort to obtain public comment from affected residents, on June 22 Mayor Brian Mullay and the Clinton Township Council voted to endorse the permanent closure of a major township thoroughfare — the section of County Road 629 that goes over Round Valley Reservoir. The proposal for the closure was made by the New Jersey Water Supply Authority to the Hunterdon County Engineer.
None of the council members live in the vicinity of the road they voted to close.
Road closure without notice
The road is an important connector between Cherry Street, Old Mountain Road and County Route 629 to points south including the nearest hospital emergency room.
Its closure will impact thousands of county residents , and in particular over 100 households on Old Mountain Road and hundreds of residents of The Lebanon Commons and Lebanon Heights.
Clinton Township has three paid announcements in the current edition of the Clinton Township Newsletter, promoting a “Green Fair,” a “Food Truck Festival” reminding residents to “Sign up for Email Alerts!”
But there was no notice or explanation in the newsletter to affected residents about the impending decision to close the road — no letter in the mail or any “Email Alert.” However, township e-mail records show Mayor Mullay was aware of the impact of a permanent closure months ago.
On April 7, 2022 he e-mailed township administrator Vita Mekovetz:
“Many will be disappointed if it is closed as people frequently ask when it will reopen.”
Mullay had two months to adequately notify affected residents.
Mayor gets the facts wrong
The mayor noted that the road “has been closed for 2 years.” In fact, the road has been closed for over 4 years.
The closure has posed a significant hardship for affected residents that rely on the route to Flemington. They say they have been waiting patiently for it to re-open upon completion of massive work on the north dam.
Councilman Bill Glaser, running for reelection in November, thinks the reservoir “was opened in the Fifties.” In fact, it was opened in the next decade.
The NJWSA made a point of telling Clinton Township to get public input on the proposed closure above and beyond normal “public notices” in the newspaper.
The mayor said that “while it would be an inconvenience, it’s ultimately the county’s decision.”
A public comment: “Security by Obscurity”
Mayor Mullay wrote this to Lebanon Borough Mayor Jim Pittinger in a June 17 e-mail:
“It would be nice if we could talk a bit more about the actual security concerns to help folks understand, but I understand why we can’t…”
A concerned Old Mountain Road resident who had heard nothing about the proposal to close the road had this response:
“I don’t understand ‘why we can’t talk about it,’ and I mistrust anyone who uses that kind of statement to hide their work. This doesn’t seem to be an area where Security by Obscurity would be effective. What’s obscure about driving a shit-ton of explosives on top of a dam?”
The NJWSA has said the road would be kept open to pedestrians and bicycles, suggesting such recreational use would not pose risks to the dam. However, none of the other dams on Round Valley have ever been open to such uses.
The NJWSA implies there are Homeland Security issues, but has provided no risk assessment or statement from that federal agency. In fact, the Authority admits it doesn’t even have the formal support of its own parent agency, the NJDEP.
In a July 1 e-mail, an official of the NJWSA stated (emphasis added):
“Please note that the Authority has received verbal support of this proposal from New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection’s Bureau of Dam Safety.”
The council has no supporting evidence
After a brief discussion, the council voted unanimously on the closure without presenting any documentation or supporting evidence to the public. No one from the NJWSA or the County Engineer’s office appeared to speak or take questions, nor was any township engineer present.
An OPRA request (NJ Open Public Records Act, or sunshine law) to the township confirmed the council has no reports or documentation to support the need for the road closure from the NJWSA, the county or any other relevant body — such as Homeland Security.
Everything is “informal” except for the council’s vote.
Two questions keep arising:
- Does anyone have anything in writing from pertinent agencies like the DEP, Homeland Security or the US Army Corps of Engineers about this specific road and this specific dam?
- Why did the Clinton Township council vote without supporting documentation?
“Give us back our road!”
One affected resident said she had heard nothing about the closure even after the council voted. She said she was part of the group of Old Mountain Road residents that for 10 years fought to save Windy Acres from development with over 1,100 housing units.
“We gave them Windy Acres for hiking and recreation for all township residents, after they called us NIMBYs and worse. Now they advertise the recreation that we made possible, but they make a decision to close our major access road to the rest of the township without taking a little extra trouble to let us have input on it? I guess we’re still NIMBYs if we don’t want the road in our backyard closed!”
Prior to voting, Councilwoman Amy Switlyk said, “So, just to reiterate, we have no choice in the long run… I’ll support it [closing the road permanently] because we don’t have a choice.”
Switlyk seemed nervous that she had no choice but to vote to close the road. The same resident said:
“Ms. Switlyk should consider that if the residents of Old Mountain Road had accepted ‘We have no choice’ when Pulte Homes planned to build 1,100 housing units on Windy Acres, she’d have no place to build hiking trails and gazebos. Give us back our road!”
What we know
An official at the NJWSA said the Authority has asked Hunterdon County to consider closing the road since it is a county road. At the county’s suggestion, the Authority sent e-mails to Clinton Township and Lebanon Borough requesting input from the governing bodies and from the public before the Authority makes a formal proposal to the county.
The official said the rationale for the road closing is “dam safety and security concerns” but also expressed the Authority’s desire to learn whether closing the road might cause “significant hardship” to affected residents.
However, said the official, while the Authority heard back from Lebanon, Clinton Township has not responded about getting public input.
It seems a little late for that.
No effort made to obtain public input
Township records as of June 27 show that the NJWSA is under the impression that only three residents have spoken up — all asking for the facts, and one of them asking whether there would be a public forum to discuss the matter.
Certainly the NJWSA and the county know that the NJ Open Public Meetings Act requires all public meeting agendas to be published in advance so the public is afforded a chance to comment. So for these agencies to specifically request public input, the intended message was that the township should do more than the legally require minimum.
From an e-mail from the NJWSA to the towns, expressing the county’s concern about potential public outcry (emphasis added):
“The County has suggested that the municipalities publicly discuss this matter on the record to minimize potential for complaints in the future if the closure becomes permanent.”
Township e-mail records show that the township for all intents and purposes ignored requests from the county and the water authority to make any special effort to obtain public input.
What we know
ExMayor.com has confirmed that, other than informal communications, neither Lebanon nor Clinton Township have any documentation of any justification for closure of the road, nor did Mayor Mullay present any verifiable facts or documentation.
In other words, the council voted blindly.
Mayor Mullay said at the June 22 meeting that there are reasons for the closure that he knew about but that could not be discussed in public, implying they were about security.
An OPRA request to Clinton Township for all communications about the matter between Clinton Township, Lebanon Borough, Hunterdon County and the NJWSA produced pages of documents but none related to security reasons for the proposed closing. There was one small redaction unrelated to the matter itself. Nothing was redacted that might suggest confidential information or any Homeland Security information was delivered to the township to aid the council’s decision making.
At the June 22 meeting, Mayor Mullay was asked about Lebanon’s position on the matter.
“I suspect that they will probably adopt a similar act as I suggested,” he responded.
Lebanon officials, however, say they have serious reservations and concerns about the closure, and that the borough’s position has not yet been formulated or communicated to the NJWSA. The borough is seeking input from the public. Lebanon’s Facebook page has a lively public discussion going about the matter.
Neither the Clinton Township website or Facebook page have any information or notices about the road closure, no requests for public input as requested by the county and the NJWSA. There is no public discussion on social media.
Over a week after council voted, it appears residents know nothing about it.
“We want the road open again!”
Politicians routinely point out that they post required legal notices about council agenda items and that it is the public’s obligation to check the agendas.
Old Mountain Road residents asked by ExMayor.com for their comments say they are upset that their tax dollars support the township’s advertising about social events and the township’s “Email Alerts” — but that no one thought that plans to close a major thoroughfare was worth “advertising.”
Another resident stated:
“We’ve been waiting patiently for 5 years for the dam reconstruction to end so we can use the road. We’ve been driving extra miles through the borough, burning expensive gas, through four stop lights and at least one jug handle to get to Route 31. We’re not worth an e-mail? They want our votes? We want the road open again.”
There is a related fly in the ointment.
While the county is funding an aggressive “Eco-Tourism” initiative to bring visitors to Hunterdon, does it make any sense to close the most stunning, gorgeous drive through nature in Hunterdon County?
The council “discussion”
Watch and listen to the entire “discussion” of the council about the road closing. Note that no factual details to justify the action are presented and no documents from the county or NJWSA are referenced.
[Complete meeting audio is available on the township’s website.]
Mayor Brian Mullay, council members Marc Strauss, Tom Kochanowski, Amy Switlyk and Bill Glaser never make mention of the hundreds of households that their decision will affect. Nor do they wonder out loud what those residents might have to say about the matter. They come up with no questions or concerns to be directed at the NJWSA or the county before making a decision.
Switlyk and Glaser are running for reelection. Neither of them suggested making the extra effort to make sure their constituents actually know what council was about to vote on.
They repeatedly emphasized that It’s not our decision. It’s not our fault. We have no control.
Mayor Mullay asks if anyone in the council chamber has a comment. There are only two people and a reporter present. He gives no indication of surprise when no one has any concerns about this.
“Many will be disappointed if it is closed as people frequently ask when it will reopen.” — Mayor Mullay, over two months earlier
This does not seem to satisfy requests from the county and NJWSA that affected residents be given a chance to participate in a public forum.
“Don’t blame us! It’s somebody else’s decision!”
When Clinton Township bungled the “new turning lanes” at Blossom Hill Road and Route 22, Mayor Brian Mullay explained that it was a State project. He said the township was not involved.
When questioned at a public meeting, he admitted the township had not reviewed the plans for the project, had not sought to provide any input to the NJ Department of Transportation, and had no idea how the DOT was designing the project.
That new intersection is now a line of orange cones defying the entire intent of the project — to make it safer to make left turns at a deadly intersection. Now drivers cannot make left turns at all.,
Mullay and the council blamed it all on the State, while failing to exercise their own prerogative to protect the interests of their constituents in Blossom Hill.
Don’t blame us! It was the state’s decision, or the county’s!
Is it a done deal?
As if Clinton Township has no influence at all on what goes on within its borders.
What’s interesting is that the NJWSA keeps referring to its “informal proposal” to Hunterdon County to permanently close the road, yet insists the township and Lebanon deliver formal resolutions of municipal and public support — in the absence of any evidence to support the need to close the road permanently.
Without anything concrete on which to base its vote, and without anything to defend its action, the Clinton Township Council voted 5-0 to let Route 629 be closed without any public comment.
Happy 4th of July. Let the fireworks begin.
Video credit: Hunterdon Review, Michelle Lacamera (video incorrectly lists Maria Lacamera)