At August meeting, Pennington Council struggles with challenges faced by COVID-19

At its regular monthly Council meeting, Mayor Joe Lawver and the Council addressed several issues that have arisen in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

A Block Party permit request and an upcoming town-wide yard sale, which would usually be accepted “pro forma,” according to Lawver, engendered much discussion. At issue was whether the town should refuse to approve such gatherings in order to attempt to contain the spread of COVID-19, or should it allow them; and, if allowed, under the standards set out by the Governor’s office or something more strict?

Councilmember Glen Griffiths lobbied to establish a guiding principle and indicated he believed that the Governor’s current order that up to 500 people may gather outside if they are wearing masks and practicing social distancing should be sufficient. Councilmember Kit Chandler lamented the “terrible timing.” She said she gets that people want to socialize but said she is concerned about how to enforce any restrictions. Lawver indicated that violators may face a $1,000 fine, but that enforcement must be consistent, and Councilmember Chico Marciante suggested that police observation of too many violators could result in “breaking up the party,” by removing road closure barriers.

Ultimately, a resolution was approved allowing a gathering of up to 100 people with strict adherence to mask and social distancing guidelines, to be monitored by law enforcement.

The Council also discussed recent complaints from residents of South Main Street regarding a large house that has been advertised as an “Airbnb vacation rental home.” The Council noted that there have been many noise and garbage complaints on weekends in which the house is used by numerous people for parties. Resident Cecile Vidican, who said she lives across the street from the house, indicated she has observed noisy partygoers with no masks, a lack of social distancing, and garbage strewn outside.

Police Chief Doug Pinelli indicated that Airbnb is in the process of removing the house from its listings based on a recent move by the company to ban party houses in New Jersey during the State of Emergency ( story here) but that “they can’t stop [reservations] that are already rented,” and Vidican stated that the listing is on more sites than just Airbnb. Lawver said he would reach out to the Governor’s office for guidance on the issue. In the meantime, Pinelli indicated that existing nuisance ordinances would continue to be enforced.

A request by a teenager who has indicated a march will be held on Wednesday evening led to extensive discussion about how to keep marchers safe and protect businesses whose customers will be inconvenienced while streets are shut down.

Pinelli indicated that the march is expected to take place on Wednesday August 5 from 5pm to 7:30pm. It will commence at the high school, go across Route 31, and will end in Pennington. He said that it was described to him by the organizer at different times as a Black Lives Matter protest and as a Youth March and could attract as many as 500 participants. He said the scheduling of the event had been somewhat confusing: “It’s the youth and I’m glad they are doing it, I’m just trying to get a little more information about it [before it occurs].”

During the march, parts of Delaware Avenue and Main Street will be closed to vehicular traffic. Chandler expressed concern for businesses that will lose customers during that time and Marciante wondered about whether a fee could be charged to cover the cost of police services.  Borough Attorney Walter Bliss indicated that assessing a large fee could “chill important First Amendment needs,” although he said the law does allow the Borough to regulate time, place, and manner of public gatherings.

Ultimately, the Council decided that going forward, the Borough will require a registration process for marches but will not assess a fee.

Alan Hershey, chair of the Open Space Committee, appeared in order to encourage the Council to pass a resolution to use Open Space money to encourage deer hunting. The resolution was passed with Lawver’s caveat to staff that there should be coordination among the Borough, Hopewell Township, Mercer County, FoHVOS, and private landowners regarding specifics of the hunt.

Councilmember Beverly Mills reported on the Pennington Library, indicating that 65 children had enrolled in the summer reading program and that last week saw the soft kickoff of the library’s curbside pickup system. She also reported that a $33,000 bequest the library had received from the Russell Mullen estate months ago had been increased recently by an additional $10,000 from his estate. 

Mills also mentioned a recent town-wide bookswap that was organized by resident Anna Salvatore on Facebook. Councilmembers all agreed that it was a great event and hope to see it occur again next year.

Marciante reported for Public Works that, since restaurants have been hosting customers outside due to the pandemic, municipal trash bins downtown have been overflowing. He said the business owners were given the opportunity to maintain them and they declined, so the trash bins were removed.

Councilmember Elizabeth Semple reported on Borough Parks and Recreation, sparking conversation about whether there is any way to open playgrounds any time soon. Borough Administrator Eileen Heinzel said she would get details on costs and funding of maintaining a sanitation program that would meet standards for reopening.

The next regular meeting is scheduled for Tuesday September 8 at 7pm. A special Borough meeting will be held next Monday, August 10 at 7pm.

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