Moorestown’s 2019 year in review

From grappling with a constant array of new challenges to the township’s affordable housing plan to encouraging residents to vote on a multi-million school referendum, the township and school board had no shortage of challenges in 2019.

From residents making every effort to give back to progress at Percheron Park, the year saw no shortage of small triumphs. As 2020 approaches, here’s a look back at the events that made headlines in 2019. 

Debbie Browning Hess and David Hess named co-citizens of the year

From the very beginning, Debbie Browning Hess and David Hess were brought together by a shared desire to give back. Saddened to learn the Moorestown Community House would no longer host teen dances, the alumni and their Moorestown High School students started their own nonprofit: Moorestown Youth Activities Council. 

The pair haven’t stopped giving back to the Moorestown community. Their fellow residents have surely taken notice since they were named the 2019 Mooretown Co-Citizens of the Year by the Moorestown Service Clubs Council. They are only the second duo to share the title in the last 60 years. Browning Hess said sharing the honor with her husband makes it all the more special.

For years, the pair worked quietly behind the scenes. They regularly donate food to the needy through local organizations such as Live Civilly, and make an annual donation of flowers to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial for Memorial Day. 

Pugh bids farewell to school board

At 19, Brandon Pugh was the youngest candidate ever elected to the Moorestown Board of Education. In January, he said goodbye to the board after seven years of service.

Pugh was only out of Moorestown High School for one year when he ran for the board. He thought his chances of making it onto the board were slim, but undeterred, he set out to knock on every door in Moorestown. 

Vying for votes in the 2012 election, against candidates who were older and more educated, Pugh told himself even if he didn’t win, he’d at least get his name out there, and he’d try again the next year. He didn’t have to. 

Pugh did not seek re-election in November 2018. A recent graduate of Rutgers Law School, he stepped away to focus on his legal career, but the district’s youngest board member to date said the decision was a bittersweet one.

“It is sad to leave the school board,” he noted. “This has been my life; my entire adult life I’ve been on the school board.”

Moorestown names Hancox new girls lax coach

For the first time in nearly three decades, Moorestown High School spent the fall searching for a new coach for its formidable girls lacrosse program. Colleen Hancox was approved as the Quakers new coach last winter, replacing Deanna Knobloch, who retired in early October.

Hancox, formerly Colleen Dalon, is a 2002 Moorestown High graduate who went on to play at the College of William and Mary. She then embarked on a coaching career that took her to England; Scotland; two World Cups; and more recently, stints as the head coach at West Windsor Plainsboro High School South, as a volunteer assistant at Delran High School and as the director for girls training for the South Jersey Select Lacrosse Club.

Having played for Knobloch, Hancox is well aware of the shoes she’s filling and also the challenge of keeping Moorestown lacrosse a national power.

“I am a competitive person; the pressure of taking over such a successful program motivates me,” Hancox wrote in an email to The Sun. “As a proud Moorestown Girls Lacrosse alumna, I will honor the past while blazing a new trail for the future.”

Lisa Petriello sworn in as mayor of Moorestown

A standing-room only crowd in town hall at the January reorganization meeting erupted into thunderous applause as township Clerk Patricia Hunt slid the mayor’s nameplate in front of Lisa Petriello, who earned the title in a 3-2 vote.

Petriello will hold the title until Dec. 31, with Councilwoman Nicole Gillespie serving as deputy mayor by her side. Newcomers Gillespie and Brian Donnelly were sworn in this month after receiving the most votes in November’s election.

At the time, Petriello said she was looking forward to a busy year ahead with a lot council still had to accomplish. Along the way, she planned on constantly examining how things are done and how they could be done better. She said she looked forward to greater transparency and improved communication.

“We have lots to do. Let’s get to work,” Petriello said.

FUMC opens their doors to LGBTQ community 

The First United Methodist Church of Moorestown this year opened its doors to the LGBTQ community. FUMC became a Reconciling Congregation through the Reconciling Ministry Network, a national network of Methodists committed to the inclusion of all sexual orientations and gender identities. FUMC is one of only eight reconciling churches in New Jersey. 

The church held its first Reconciling Jan. 20 to welcome members of the LGBTQ community. Marvin A. Marsh, a retired Baptist pastor and past director of the Neighborhood Action Program, served as the celebration’s guest speaker.

After spending nearly 15 months researching and consulting with members, the church put the decision to become a reconciling church to a vote last November, and 93 percent of the congregation voted to become a reconciling church.

“That is such an overwhelming majority,” said FUMC Treasurer Doug Sell. “It was very gratifying, and it was very encouraging. It means to those of us who have been working at this that we have the authority by all of the support to continue.”

Local nonprofit CommUNITY wants to let neighbors know they care

A few years ago, a group of seven friends came together at the Wegmans in Moorestown. They all shared a desire to give back to their communities and wanted to do more than just talk about it. They sat down and began to figure out ways to help. That’s when local nonprofit CommUNITY SJP was born.

The volunteer-driven nonprofit’s goal is to “promote civic engagement and greater cross-cultural understanding” through community service projects and social events in the South Jersey and Philadelphia regions. The group regularly hosts events in Burlington, Camden and Gloucester counties, as well as Philadelphia. 

The group came together at the Moorestown Library Jan. 26 to assemble no-sew fleece blankets for local shelters and families in need. The project marked the latest in a series of service events. To date, CommUNITY SJP has provided more than a thousand meals for the hungry, made welcome bags for newly arrived refugees and assembled care packages for migrant workers. 

Hafeza Shaikh, one of CommUNITY’s founding members and a Moorestown resident, said once the group got to work, members rapidly realized just how many ways there are to give back. She said the philosophy is to think globally and act locally.

Record-setting swim gives Moorestown girls swimming a boost entering playoffs

The Moorestown High School girls swimming earned a team title at the Coaches’ Invitational on Jan. 26. Moorestown took first place in the girls’ A Division with 276.5 points and finished the meet with a record-breaking swim from the 400-yard freestyle relay team. 

It was the second straight year the Quakers took first place at the Coaches’ Invitational. In 2018, Moorestown finished in first place in the B Division. But senior Holly Robinson said the 2019 first-place finish — accomplished by competing in the A division with larger schools — felt different. 

“Last year, that meet wasn’t the turning point of the season,” she said. “This year, we haven’t had the greatest season in terms of what we wanted to do in the dual meets. Having this win showed us what we’re capable of doing.”

Rich recognized for trailblazing environmental protection efforts

Along Creek Road in Moorestown is an unassuming open space known as The Little Woods on the Rancocas. With shrubbery and trees lining the small path, the space might not look like much to those speeding by, but the path leads to an unexpected 11-acre open space that opens up to a priceless view of the Rancocas River.

Unassuming might also be a fitting a description for the open space’s new namesake. As of February, the space was renamed The Barbara Rich Preserve at Little Woods. Small in stature and exceedingly modest, Rich doesn’t like to call attention to herself, but that hasn’t helped her escape notice from the Moorestown Council, which honors her for her stewardship of Moorestown’s open spaces.

Rich moved to Moorestown in 1970 and joined Save The Environment of Moorestown. At the time, STEM (Save The Environment of Moorestown) was touring the town to identify and map the community’s open spaces, and the more she learned about them, the more Rich began to feel a deep attachment to these untouched and treasured places.

Preserving the town’s open spaces became something of a passion project for Rich, and she currently serves as STEM’s liaison to the Open Space Committee. While development can be positive, Rich’s priority has always been to see that any development done in town protects the surrounding environment.

Moorestown Garden Club creates a ‘haven’ at Philadelphia Flower Show

The Moorestown Garden Club’s goal for their 2019 Philadelphia Flower Show entry was a simple one: to create something that makes people stop and stare. Ultimately, the club  nabbed third place, earning 96 points out of a possible 100 for its creation.

In June, the club’s eight-person Garden Show Committee learned they had accepted to the garden class, a design class that has them create a 12-feet by 16-feet garden on the convention center floor. The show’s 2019 theme was Flower Power, and the garden class theme was Yin Yang. The club was  tasked with designing a garden that illustrates complementary and opposing forces in nature. The club competed against three other gardens in its class. 

One half of the garden featured light-colored plants, while the other had darker-colored plants. The garden featured two pots with flowering plants: one side was tall while the other was short. 

Parks & Rec. snags two state awards 

For the second year in a row, the state took notice of the Moorestown Department of Parks and Recreation. In late February, the department was recognized by the New Jersey Recreation & Park Association for Excellence in Educational & Interpretive Programming for its recreation community kitchen as well as for Excellence in Visual & Cultural Programming for “The Art of Polynesia.” That came one year after the department was awarded the  2017–2018 Jacquie Stanley Excellence in Therapeutic Programming award from the park association.

Smoking extinguished at Moorestown’s parks

Mayor Lisa Petriello in March discussed the steps Moorestown was taking to enforce the state ban on smoking in public parks at the most recent meeting of the township council.

Gov. Phil Murphy signed off on revisions to the New Jersey Smoke-Free Air Act of 2006,  which makes smoking cigarettes, cigars or pipes and using any smokeless tobacco devices illegal in New Jersey’s public parks, forests and beaches. 

Under the bill, the state Department of Environmental Protection, towns and counties can fine offenders $250 for their first offense, $500 for their second offense and $1,000 for each subsequent offense. 

Moorestown’s Department of Parks and Recreation put up signage to inform park-goers that smoking is strictly prohibited at the township’s public parks. Local police will be responsible for enforcement. 

“I’m pretty excited to be moving forward with this [in] our community,” Petriello said at the time.

Covenant upheld: Township forced to revisit affordable housing plan

Residents whose homes border 160 West Route 38 spent nearly one year wondering about the fate of nearby property. On March 25, they were one step closer to an answer with Judge Ronald E. Bookbinder denying Pennrose, LLC.’s request for summary judgment. 

Pennrose, the site’s contract purchaser, was unable to construct its proposed 75 multi-family affordable housing units because of a restrictive covenant put in place in 1945 that limits development on the property. Bookbinder’s March 25 opinion stated the covenant is still valid under the law. 

Pennrose filed a complaint in March 2018 that sought to invalidate the restrictive covenant, resulting in 64 nearby property owners being served legal notices. In response, more than 15 residents became involved in the case in an effort to stop Pennrose from invalidating the covenant.

MooreUnity wants Moorestown to ‘Know Your Muslim Neighbor’ 

After the March 15 mass shootings at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, Karen Reiner, co-founder of civic group MooreUnity, was chatting with her friend Sahar Ibrahim about how they could help build bridges. Ibrahim suggested a simple solution: an opportunity for community members to meet their Muslim neighbors. So, Ibrahim reached out to some friends.

The Know Your Muslim Neighbor program took place April 28 at Perkins Center for the Arts. Attendees engaged in conversations, hands-on activities and enjoyed food, all intended to give them a better look at the Islamic culture.

The event’s stations ran the gamut with activities such a learning about how to put on a hijab and a calligraphy table where attendees had their names written in Arabic. Attendees  also sampled traditional Islamic foods and participated in arts and crafts that focus on Islamic patterns and designs.

Moorestown PD joins an exclusive group

In April, the Moorestown Township Police Department joined an elite group. The department received its certificate of accreditation from the New Jersey State Association of Chiefs of Police.

Harry Delgado, director of accreditation for the NJSACOP, was in attendance to present the certificate to Chief Lee Lieber and Accreditation Manager Lt. Michael Maahs. Delgado said the accreditation process is a way to measure a department’s performance against an established set of state and national standards.

“It’s a feat that has only been accomplished by about one-third of the law enforcement agencies in the state,” he noted.

MTPS face unprecedented kindergarten enrollment issues

The Moorestown Township School District in April faced an unprecedented problem. While the district anticipated an influx in enrollment each summer, two Moorestown elementary schools were already capped in late spring. George C. Baker and South Valley Elementary Schools completely filled their kindergarten classes for the 2019-2020 school year.

Board President Sandra Alberti said the board was dealing with “undeniably linked” issues as it discussed the potential for full-day kindergarten and Moorestown’s space issues. Given that information, the board subsequently became embroiled in discussions about whether to proceed with full-day kindergarten. 

That marked the earliest that the district’s elementary schools had been capped. Alberti said they were facing situations where students entering kindergarten will have to go to a different school than their elementary-level siblings.

“We literally don’t have seats,” she said.

School board passes tax increase, shoots down full-day kindergarten 

In May, Moorestown residents learned they’d be facing a school tax increase under the district’s 2019-2020 budget. The township board of education adopted its budget at a special meeting, during which it also voted down an additional spending proposal that would finance the implementation of free, full-day kindergarten.

The district is growing its budget to the 2 percent allowable tax cap. The preliminary budget includes a $96.57 school tax increase for the average assessed home valued at $454,032.

The total budget is $74.3 million, with approximately $64.2 million to be raised through taxation. The district is receiving an increase of $196,768 in state aid this year, bringing total state aid to around $3.7 million.

Board President Sandra Alberti said when the board first raised the issue of full-day kindergarten, its priority was improving quality of services. She said given the influx in enrollment, full-day kindergarten might have put added strain on the district’s ability to seamlessly roll out the program.

“It’s more about timing and the fact that we do have information now that we didn’t have in March,” Alberti explained.

The board unanimously voted against the additional spending proposal in a decision that  closed the book on free, full-day kindergarten for the 2019-2020 school year. While the board voted no to full-day kindergarten, it is still actively discussing a potential referendum to address a variety of capital improvement projects. 

Board decides to put referendum to a vote

In May, the Moorestown Board of Education put forth a $25.6 million bond referendum that would finance improvements to the district’s space, security and sustainability initiatives.

While the district was seeking state aid toward the proposed projects, taxpayers would have had to take on the major share of the project, with residents bearing responsibility for $18.9 million of the $25.6 million project. 

At the time, Superintendent Scott McCarntey said the district was facing tight space constraints. While the district’s general population has seen a decrease over the last eight out of 10 years, the district has seen an increase in specialized programming. The superintendent said that means the district has created new spaces to house computer labs, STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) areas and other types of instructional spaces for specialized programming. As a result, the district does not have unused space.

Roberts School takes steps to eliminate food waste

As of the 2019-2020 school year, Roberts School made a concerted effort to reduce its food waste. On June 4, the school was presented with a $2,000 grant for Sustainable Jersey for Schools, that was used to help sort and preserve uneaten food from entering the waste stream. In turn, that food was donated to the First Baptist Church of Moorestown’s food pantry.

The money went toward purchasing refrigerators and heavy duty totes. When the new school year started in September, there was signage and paraprofessionals on hand to explain to students how to sort their untouched and unopened food.

MEA, BOE reach settlement

With a little over a week left on its contract, the Moorestown Education Association came to an agreement with the Moorestown Township Public Schools Board of Education. The memorandum of agreement was approved at a June board of education meeting and was the culmination of six months of negotiations between the two parties.

The new contract will run from July 1 to June 30, 2022. The terms broadly include: maintaining the current salary guide with minor enhancements; an extra day of professional development; and changes to health-care plans, which will provide savings to both MEA members and the district.

Seven board members voted to approve the memorandum while board member Mark Villanueva voted no and Vice President David Weinstein abstained from voting due to a conflict of interest.

Board President Sandra Alberti said the agreement represents vigorous discussion and debate.

“Settling a contract with the MEA was certainly about costs, but it was also about how we can work together to contain future costs and improve … how we we support the students in this district,” she noted.

Judge approves amendments to affordable housing plan 

Moorestown Township’s amendments to its affordable housing plan were endorsed by the judge at a fairness hearing on June 24, according to Township Manager Thomas Neff. 

In April, Judge Ronald Bookbinder asked the township to identify an alternate site to Pennrose, a site that was embroiled in pending litigation for much of the previous two years. Pennrose LLC was attempting to invalidate a restrictive covenant that limits development at Pennrose’s proposed site located at 160 Route West Route 38. While this covenant is in place, Pennrose was unable to construct its proposed 75 multi-family affordable housing units on the site. 

In early June, council passed a resolution approving an amendment to its settlement with Fair Share Housing. At that time, the township identified the Miles Technology Site on Route 38 as a Pennrose alternative and added the Diocese of Trenton’s Centerton Road location to the overall plan. 

Moorestown residents see tax increase

Moorestown Township residents saw a tax increase in the coming year. Township council adopted the 2019 budget at its June meeting. Under the budget, the local purpose tax of $0.41 per $100 of assessed value is an increase of 1 cent, or 2.48 percent from last year. 

The average assessed home of $454,032 will pay $1,879.69 in local purpose taxes. This is a $45.40 increase over last year’s average assessed home tax bill. The municipal portion of this tax is $1,698.08, an increase of $36.32 from last year, while the library portion is $181.61, an increase of 5.26 percent from last year. The 2019 tax levy will generate $16,759,668, a 2.86 increase from 2018. 

Moorestown Fire Department dedicates new truck to longtime member Arthur Collins

The Moorestown Fire Department can trace its history back to the early 1800s, and like many American fire-fighting organizations, it is proud of traditions developed over centuries.

The local fire district, made up of Hose Company No. 1 on West Main Street and Relief Engine Company on Chester Avenue, kept a long-held tradition alive with the dedication and housing ceremony for the most recent addition to the fleet, Engine 3111.

The new pumper was officially dedicated on Aug. 5 to one of the department’s most senior member, Arthur Collins, a man who has had an undeniable influence on the organization during his 61 years with the department. Members from Lenola Fire Company, Relief Engine Company and various representatives from local fire departments showed up for the event at the Main Street station.

Township seeking county funds to help restore local softball fields 

In May, nearly 50 young women from the Moorestown Youth Softball Association (MYSA) stood before council and asked that they take action to repair the softball fields at Wesley Bishop Park. In September, Moorestown Township Council demonstrated its commitment to rectifying the situation.

Council authorized an application for grant funds from the Burlington County Municipal Park Development Program. Repairs to Wesley Bishop Park South were estimated to cost $610,300, and the township is applying to obtain a $250,000 grant from the county.

In the spring of 2017, MYSA cancelled 11 games across nine nights due to field conditions;  in the spring of 2018, eight games were cancelled across six nights. MYSA members previously told council the softball fields have insufficient drainage and they had to cancel games three days after a rainstorm because of undrained water. 

MEND celebrates 50 years providing affordable housing

For the past 50 years, MEND (Moorestown Ecumenical Neighborhood Development) has provided below-market rental apartments for low- and moderate-income families and individuals in Moorestown, and more recently, some of its surrounding municipalities.

MEND was founded in 1969 by nine local churches with a focus on developing, building, owning and managing affordable rental housing. The organization predates the state Supreme Court’s 1985 Mount Laurel decision declaring unconstitutional any municipal land use regulations that prevent opportunities for low- and moderate-income housing and establishing the Council on Affordable Housing.

“What these gentlemen did back in 1969 was purely based on their sense that there were people in Moorestown who were ill-housed, probably in dangerous housing, and they felt that it was their civic and Christian duty to try to help,” said Matt Reilly, president and CEO of MEND since 2001.

MEND’s 50th anniversary celebration took place Oct. 4 at The Merion in Cinnaminson. The organization’s founder, Boyce M. Adams, who passed away in 2006, was honored along with Reilly as the current president. Ahaji Schreffler was a featured speaker and shared her story of transitioning from a MEND resident to a homeowner and MEND board member.

Council taps Pennrose for Harper Drive site 

As of November, an end to the litigation between the residents of Meadow Drive and Moorestown Urban Renewal Associates, LLC, a subsidiary of Pennrose, LLC, was in sight. On Nov. 4, Moorestown Council passed a resolution executing a Memorandum of Understanding under which Pennrose has agreed to withdraw its suits against both the township and the Meadow Drive residents. In exchange, Pennrose will work with the township to develop 75 affordable units at 307 Harper Drive. Council unanimously voted yes on the agreement. 

The residents of Meadow Drive, whose homes border 160 West Route 38, have been embroiled in litigation with Pennrose for almost two years. In March 2018, Pennrose filed a complaint seeking to invalidate a restrictive covenant at the Route 38 site, which resulted in 64 nearby property owners being served legal notices. In response, more than 15 residents became involved in the case in an effort to stop Pennrose from invalidating the covenant, whose restrictions limit development at the Route 38 site. In September, council formally refocused its efforts from 160 West Route 38 to 307 Harper Drive. 

Turning the page: Galbraith retires from Moorestown Library

For the last 24 years, the Moorestown Library has been Director Joseph Galbraith’s 24-year-long summit. He’s ascended to new heights in his role as library director, having seen more visitors frequenting the establishment today than 10, 15 or even 20 years ago, with nearly 400 people passing through on any given day. Galbraith’s adventure at the Moorestown Library came to a close Dec. 17 as he embarked on a new one: retirement.

Galbraith became acquainted with the then-director of the Moorestown Library through his previous job at EBSCO Information Services. One day, when he was out on a call with EBSCO, that director made Galbraith a job offer and he accepted. Galbraith came to work as the head of technical services for the library in 1996.

He was promoted to his director role in 2007, but despite the title, Galbraith has always considered himself a “boots on the ground” kind of leader. He said he’s done it all during his time in Moorestown, from manning the reference desk to running programs and even cleaning the bathrooms. But that’s par for the course at the library, he added, and every person who works there does the same. 

“We all wear a whole lot of hats because we’re all in this to get one thing done and that’s to serve the citizens of Moorestown.”

Friends of Percheron Park seek help to get park over the finish line 

For more than a decade, the Friends of Percheron Park have waited patiently to bring their vision for a pocket park on Main Street to life. Puritan Oil Company, Inc., a subsidiary of Global Partners LP and the party responsible for soil remediation at the site, believes its remediation efforts are at an end, and as they await the green light from the Department of Environmental Protection, the Friends aren’t wasting any time.

In December, the Friends discussed the next steps needed to bring the park to life. While the Friends currently have a handle on element costs, they seek the township’s assistance in calculating construction estimates for the space.

Township Manager Thomas Neff said Puritan Oil has removed the contaminated dirt from the site and replaced it with clean fill. According to Neff, Puritan has plans to submit an application to DEP within the next month, but an official sign off from DEP could take between four and six months. 

The Friends are now at work to update element costs. Logue said they the group has been  able to calculate the cost for the statue, landscaping, the historical marker and impressions that will be installed, but it no longer has a construction person on the board. For that reason, the Friends want to have the township’s engineer gather information about the park’s technical specifications. The Friends currently have $95,000 in a local bank, and they have plans to start another fundraising push in the near future.

Moorestown votes no on $22.6-million referendum

Moorestown residents were asked to vote on a proposed $22.6-million bond referendum Dec. 10, and the majority were not in favor. According to the Burlington County Board of Elections’s unofficial results, the referendum failed to pass. 

Proposal No. 1 asked voters to approve $22.6 million in renovations, alterations and repairs to all of the buildings in the district. Proposal No. 2 asked for an additional $3.5 million in renovations, alterations and improvements to Moorestown High School, William Allen Middle School and the administration building. Proposal one received 1,185 yes votes and 1,574 no votes. Proposal 2 received 1,190 yes votes and 1,559 no votes.

Superintendent Scott McCartney thanked the Moorestown community for engaging in the referendum process and exercising its right to vote.