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Building Smarter Communities by Getting More Involved

If a town doesn't have a proactive plan for its development, outside developers will come in and build whatever suits them, and the local government and residents will have to acquiescently accept the construction of something they never wanted. This is the sad reality too many of us had to personally learn the hard way a little too late, as we watched our own neighborhoods turn into more of the same soulless environment that surrounds us.

The only way around this is to intentionally communicate what we want built on the land chartered to our municipality, find the right architects, developers, engineers and other specialists to build it, and conditionally support their application.

It's important to be intentional and conditional. We don't want to discriminate against any applications, and we don't want to favor the applicants we found if they are unreasonable. However, developers should know the vision residents have in mind for their town and respect it. A vision for a town goes beyond a master plan and zoning code. A vision is not a list of parameters. It is a clear, positive, tangible proposal for the entire environment of a town, a proposal that conforms to locally loved architecture. Without a vision, applicants won't have anything to go by except the master plan and zoning code. Everything else will be designed to maximize profit. Everything else will be secondary to money, including beauty. The aesthetics of the property will most likely sink to the least common denominator for beauty, which is usually landscaping.

I felt the need to share these thoughts because I recently discovered that two lots on Route 9 in my town, Stafford, have applications for personal storage facilities, one of which was recently approved. It's on the corner of Route 9 and McKinley Ave, the corner nearest my development. Several neighbors went and pleaded their case for why they didn't want the facility in their neighborhood, but their concerns ultimately lost to the cases of the applicant's professionals and the neighbors who were okay with the plans. Many neighbors simply acquiesced saying, "Worse things could be built there" or "It's a lesser evil". I expressed my dislike for the project, but my words may have done more harm than good. When people in a neighborhood can't influence what gets built there, that means our republic is broken.

When it comes to urban planning, we need a paradigm shift. The main argument for supporting development like public storage facilities goes something like this: "This is what all of the surrounding towns are doing, so it makes sense to just go along with it." But generally speaking, the public does not like what surrounding towns or what even their own towns are building. We don't like the typical built-for-profit modern landscape. Developers are offering more of the same, and the public wants something different. Personal storage facilities are just more of the same. Why does money always have to be the deciding factor for a construction project? Yes, money talks, but perhaps it talks too much.

Neighbors want these types of facilities hidden from their view. That alone says a lot. What happened to the times when structures were aesthetically pleasing enough for people to actually want to be near them, and able to see them? Property owners and tenants pay top dollar for good views of some skylines and structures, like the Golden Gate Bridge or Statue of Liberty. Residents used to want to be near their town center. Now, more often than not they want to be guarded from such areas, since they're usually just ugly and noisy.

Arguments for and against self storage facilities

One argument made for personal storage units is that young adults are being offered heirlooms from their parents and grandparents, but since they don't yet have their own homes they have no space for these items. But perhaps we should address the reason why they don't have their own homes yet. Homes are becoming too expensive, which is another consequence of a society built to maximize profit at every turn. A better way to offer more space for young adults is to build more affordable homes for them. We don't need much square footage for a starter home. In fact, I live in a 900 square foot 3-bedroom house and have an entire bedroom I don't even use, which just happens to be about the size of a storage unit: 10x12 ft.

Another argument for storage units is that recreational teams often use self storage for their equipment, and this has supported local sports leagues. So, let me get this straight. Instead of finding ways to store the equipment at the organizer's property or at the place where the sport is played, the town should support putting this equipment in a different place entirely? In addition to being more inconvenient for the organizer, it's also bad for the community because the added trip to the storage facility puts an extra car on more roads.

Another case to be made for storage facilities is that the post COVID world requires backup storage for local businesses in case the economy shuts down again and they can't receive shipments. Again though, wouldn't it make more sense to support a self storage unit on the local business' property? If zoning ordinances prevent this, I think it would still be easier to approve variances for single units on scattered properties than the variances often needed to accomodate dozens of storage units on one property.

Lastly, it was argued that storage facilities provide a good buffer and sound wall. Better than woods? When people unload their stuff into storage units, they usually use trucks. They're moving heavy items in and out, and they often bring their moving buddies to help them move stuff. It may be less noisy than a tavern, but not less noisy than the woods now occupying both properties where storage facilities are being proposed in Stafford.

When I went to the zoning board meeting yesterday and heard a storage facility was being proposed, at first I honestly thought everyone was talking about the one planned for Pollypod Road that I heard about at the recent planning board meeting. When I noticed it was a completely different self storage project even closer to my home, I couldn't believe it. Are our ears set to some frequency that can only hear the ching of money? Are we so acquiescent about our built environment that we'll let three self storage facilities pop up on our main street within a mile of each other within five years? Are we so superficial that we prefer profit and convenience over everything else?

I think we're better than that. I think we can endorse better ideas and build more beautiful environments. I think we can imagine better development in my neighborhood, throughout our town, throughout our county, throughout the entire state of New Jersey. We don't need to bow to capitalism. We can work more diligently in our hometowns to form grassroots movements that promote construction projects that emulate the beautiful places we all know and love like Smithville, Beach Haven, and Reynolds on East Bay Avenue. In fact, I think it's about time we did just that. It's about time we told money to shut up for once so we can focus on more important things.


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