Snapshots of New Jersey: Hammonton — Transparency and Community Engagement

Michael J. Hozik | August 27, 2012 | Opinion
Separating form from function -- and adding a third political party -- help Hammonton transform its townscape

While NJ Spotlight is on summer hiatus, we’ve made sure you won’t lack for intriguing reading. We’ve put together a series of Snapshots of New Jersey, a close look at some of the varied and vibrant places that make up the Garden State — from Wildwood to Montague and Barnegat Bay to Teaneck. Enjoy. We’ll be back August 28.

In many ways, the journey to Hammonton’s form-based code started more than 20 years ago, when some members of the Chamber of Commerce got together to form the Hammonton Revitalization Corp. with the idea of restoring the historic train station. In 1993 they applied successfully to become a MainStreet town, and MainStreet Hammonton began to address the problems plaguing downtown: vacant storefronts, lack of code enforcement, and general deterioration.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, residents of Hammonton engaged in a longstanding and increasingly heated debate over the location of a much-needed new town hall. Should it remain downtown, even though businesses had continued to move out to the White Horse Pike. Or should it also be located on the highway?

At one point it looked as if the highway proponents were going to prevail. A group of citizens from across the political spectrum, dissatisfied with the lack of transparency in the decision-making process, formed a new political organization, Hammonton First. Promising they were for “the people, not the politics,” Hammonton First swept all three council seats and the mayor’s race in the next election. The new town hall was built downtown.

In 2007, John Woods, then executive director of MainStreet Hammonton, applied for a state Smart Growth Planning Grant of $50,000 to develop a form-based code — a planning tool that groups buildings by their physical form rather than their use. By the time the town was notified that it had received the award, Dr. Woods had left MainStreet Hammonton. The newly hired executive director, Cassie Iacovelli, went to an informational session on form-based codes, where she met Bill Beetle of the Municipal Land Use Center. He told her that they were looking for towns that wanted to develop form-based codes and he encouraged her to apply for funds through the New Jersey Department of Transportation. Because Hammonton was already a MainStreet town with a record of making good use of grant funds, and because it already had the Smart Growth grant to use as leverage, the DOT approved the additional grant of $50,000 to help with planning.

Beetle and the town created what became known as the municipal project team, comprising representatives from the planning board, the zoning board, the Hammonton First-dominated town council, the state Department of Transportation, the Pinelands Commission, the Historical Society, the Hammonton Chamber of Commerce, the Regional Planning Association, NJ Transit, the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority, and Atlantic County.

Beetle also helped the town identify and select planning consulting firm Brown & Keener Urban Design, a firm with a strong track record of involving the community in each of its projects, to lead the process.

Beginning in late May 2009, Brown & Keener reviewed Hammonton’s zoning code and studied the town to see how consistent its development was with what the code required. The firm also looked at what kinds of changes the code would allow if existing structures were to be replaced.

Maintaining its commitment to transparency and citizen involvement, the municipal project team held a town-wide visioning session in September 2009. Roundtable groups evaluated possible building designs, addressing whether a particular type of structure was appropriate in downtown, on the nearby White Horse Pike, or not at all. The results of those evaluations were tabulated and the data were used in developing the code.

A second workshop offered one-on-one conversations with the consultants, discussion of the appropriateness of a range of building types in various parts of town, and general concerns.

As the project progressed, the project team posted information and updates on a public website and created online and paper surveys including a version in Spanish. Responses to those surveys were included in the report and incorporated in plans produced by Brown & Keener.

Finally, in December 2009 the project team organized a bus tour, dubbed the “Code Talker’s Tour,” for elected officials, the planning board, the zoning board, and members of the public on a space-available basis. The tour went to various parts of town and asked participants to consider what kind of development was possible on each site based on the existing code; whether that was the development residents would prefer; if not, what changes should be considered for the new form-based code; and would these changes be compatible with the community’s vision of Hammonton. Findings from the discussions on the bus tour were incorporated into the first draft of the code.

During the spring of 2010, sections of the new form-based code were presented to the planning and zoning boards and to the mayor and council, all at televised public meetings. Working groups examined and provided feedback on each draft.

At the same time as the code was being drafted, Hammonton was due to re-examine its master plan. The coincidence provided a perfect opportunity to ensure that the plan and the proposed code were consistent.

By late 2011, after multiple public hearings and revisions, the code, the downtown plan, a new signage code, and the revised master plan were ready for adoption by the planning board, and the ordinances necessary to implement the plans were ready for adoption by mayor and council. As a last step, the final version of the code and all the plans were submitted to and approved by the Pinelands Commission. In June 2012, Hammonton was honored with a New Jersey Future Smart Growth Award.

There was robust public discussion throughout the entire process, but the town now has a final plan and code that reflect the community’s input and are responsive to the needs of all interested parties. Not everyone is in agreement with every word of the plan, but enough discussion and modification took place so that everyone felt his or her voice had been heard.

And candidates from Hammonton First have now won the mayorship and town council seats in a second election.

This article was adapted in part from articles published in the Hammonton Gazette on June 13 and June 20, 2012.