Moorestown council to see changeover in new year

Mayor Gillespie will be the only 2020 member to serve again in 2021.

The year that many would rather forget is almost over. As 2020 draws to a close, Mayor Nicole Gillespie and township staff are shifting focus and planning ahead for 2021. 

And Gillespie is doing so with a new team of council members surrounding her. Councilwoman Lisa Petriello and councilman Michael Locatell did not seek reelection in 2020. Victoria  Napolitano had the longest tenure on Moorestown council, having served for eight years. Petriello served for five, and Locatell for four. Both Napolitano and Petriello served as mayor during their time on council. 

Democrats Dave Zipin, Sue Mammarella and Jake Van Dyken earned more votes than Republican candidates Vick Bobadilla, Doug Maute and Barbara Omert in the November election. The three newcomers will be sworn in at the Jan. 4 council reorganization meeting. 

At the last council meeting of 2020, Deputy Mayor Brain Donnelly announced his plans to resign from council, citing the time commitment as the primary reason for his departure. Donnelly explained that juggling his duties as deputy mayor, his daughter’s remote learning environment and his work was becoming difficult. He stressed that he wanted to devote more time to his daughter and said he would continue to serve until council names a replacement.

“It’s been an honor serving,” Donnelly said. “I wish the incoming council Godspeed, and I’d like to thank the people of Moorestown for the privilege of having served. It’s really been the highlight of my life.”

One of the biggest items on the incoming council’s agenda will be implementing the township’s affordable housing plan. On Dec. 22, council appeared before the Burlington County Courts for its compliance hearing, and the meeting was continued over until Jan. 12. Gillespie said once the compliance hearing is over and council’s plan is approved, the township can begin moving forward.

“Once we are through that, the plan is final; it’s nailed down. We are protected from builders’ remedy lawsuits,” she explained. “Then, we have to move forward with implementing that plan.”

Gillespie said she’s eager to see how the plan unfolds at the Moorestown Mall. As of December, township officials were nearing an agreement with the mall that would call for 300 apartment buildings, with 20 percent set aside for affordable housing. There is also talk of constructing a hotel at the site. 

Plans to create a pocket park on Main Street are also nearing the final design stages. Gillespie said the plans for Percheron Park are “beautiful but expensive,” so officials are trying to find ways to continue moving forward with the project without succumbing to excess spending. 

Also in terms of spending, Gillespie said she and Township Manager Thomas Merchel have had conversations about the 2021 budget and have agreed that “next year is going to be tough.” As a result of the pandemic, township revenues are down, and the township dipped into its reserve funds to forego a tax increase. 

Gillespie explained that the township cannot continue to dip into reserve funds without incurring a deficit.

“We’re going to have to get creative this year,” the mayor insisted.

Selling packaged-good liquor licenses is one of creative approaches council plans to take in the new year. Changes to the township’s master plan are anticipated to be approved by the planning board in early 2021. Those changes would allow micro-breweries and craft distilleries to come to town. 

Gillespie also stressed that while there’s reason to be hopeful with a vaccine for COVID on the horizon, the pandemic is not yet done. She noted that Moorestown residents need to continue social distancing and mask-wearing to combat a rise in cases.

“The better we are at that, the sooner we’ll get through this and the sooner businesses will pick up; that’s my main message,” she said. “We’re seeing a light at the end.”