White Deer Plaza bustled with business owners and patrons on Saturday afternoon, drawn by a shared concern for the future of the shopping plaza. Banners strung over the boardwalk and signs posted beside storefronts read “Save White Deer Plaza,” as business owners handed out free samples and collected petition signatures in support of allowing paid parking in the private lot owned by the Lake Mohawk Country Club.
After three years of ongoing conflict with Sparta Township, Lake Mohawk Country Club had released a statement through its attorneys on Sept. 30, announcing that the lot would be closed to non-members starting Oct. 23.
The club had proposed implementing paid parking in 2016, to help offset costs of maintaining the lot. In 2017, LMCC’s application for paid parking was rejected by the Sparta Township Planning Board after a split 4-4 vote. In 2018, it was likewise rejected by the Zoning Board of Adjustment. Both rejections remain in litigation.
However, on Saturday it seemed that compromise was finally in sight.
Mayor Molly Whilesmith and LMCC Board of Trustees President Bill Greenlaw walked through the plaza together during the event, speaking to patrons and business owners.
“Overwhelmingly, the business owners support this initiative in this private parking lot,” Mayor Whilesmith said in a statement following the event. “I anticipate that they will attend the next council meeting with over a thousand petitions.”
“Universally, we heard that this is a special place, and we all need to join together and continue to support this vibrant town center,” said Greenlaw.
Saturday’s event was organized by the merchants of White Deer Plaza, shortly after the LMCC’s announcement that it would be closing the lot to non members.
“If people come here and can’t park, they’re going to stop coming,” said Barbara Silvestri, of Coldwell Banker Real Estate. “And property values will go down if people stop coming.”
Nick and Maria Kroudis, owners of the Italian restaurant Il Porto, handed out free pasta samples at their booth on the boardwalk. Nick Kroudis said that the closure of the LMCC parking lot “would impact us drastically, since we’re on the boardwalk directly” without access to plaza parking.
At last Tuesday’s unusually crowded town council meeting, almost two dozen Sparta residents and business owners stood up to speak during the public portion. Many residents were frustrated and confused as to why a decision hadn’t been reached in the past three years.
“Enough is enough,” said Lake Mohawk resident Jennifer Phillips, drawing strong applause from fellow residents.
Meanwhile, business owners worried about how their patrons would get to them.
“It keeps me up at night,” said Christopher Murch, owner of WaggMore Pet Boutique, which has been open in White Deer Plaza for two years. While Murch said his loyal customers would “find a way to get to me,” the parking lot issue had nonetheless left him reconsidering his decision to open his business in Sparta rather than Denville.
Kevin Kelly, one of the attorneys representing LMCC, estimated costs for maintaining and renovating the parking lot at $700,000. To help offset these costs, LMCC had proposed charging $1 per hour, for up to four hours, to non members using the lot.
On Oct. 10, the counsel for the Township, along with Township Manager Bill Close, met with the counsel for LMCC, and LMCC General Manager John Stanley.
“Bill and I were happy to share the good news that we are confident that our attorneys, Township Manager and LMCC General Manager have come up with a plan that will be mutually acceptable to all parties,” Whilesmith said. “We are both excited that this will end the litigation and have everyone come out as winners. We are all working together.”
“The Mayor and I understand that the solution that they are drafting will solve the parking issue without the need to raise taxes,” said Greenlaw. “I have had assurances that the draft of that resolution will be available to the LMCC Board of Trustees before our October 21, 2019 meeting.”
The resolution will then be considered at the next town council meeting, which will take place on Tuesday, Oct. 22, one day before LMCC had announced it would be closing its lot to non-members. Should the town council reach a solution on Oct. 22, the lot will not be closed.