Cranford mayor closes street without permission from NJDOT

CRANFORD, NJ — Mayor Kathleen Miller Prunty is under fire for her recent decision to close Eastman Street to create a pedestrian mall, despite the New Jersey Department of Transportation’s first letter denying permission to close it, which was dated Tuesday, May 18. NJDOT did not authorize the full closure of Eastman Street, but Prunty closed it anyway.

In a second letter sent to Prunty from Executive Manager Jaime Oplinger of the Bureau of Traffic Engineering, dated Tuesday, June 29, the NJDOT recognized that Cranford had closed Eastman Street despite its letter not permitting such a closure. Now, the NJDOT has demanded that Cranford immediately reopen Eastman Street to vehicular traffic.

“As indicated in the May 18 letter, the New Jersey Department of Transportation did not authorize the full closure of Eastman Street, as the closure would impact state highway Route 28 at this unique intersection,” the letter said. “It has come to my attention that the township of Cranford has closed Eastman Street, despite our denial letter. This closure is not approved, and Cranford must immediately reopen Eastman Street to vehicular traffic.”

As stated in the letter, the New Jersey Commissioner of Transportation must approve any municipal ordinance, resolution or regulation concerning the closure of a non–state highway for more than 48 hours. Moreover, the commissioner is not required to approve any such ordinance, resolution or regulation, unless, “after investigation by the commissioner, the same shall appear to be in the interest of safety and the expediency of traffic on the public highways.”

As of Tuesday, July 26, Eastman Street has remained closed.

In a letter addressed to Oplinger dated Wednesday, June 30, township attorney Ryan J. Cooper said Eastman Street had been closed according to the Special Improvement District pedestrian mall ordinance, Ordinance 2021-09, to create the Eastman Street Pedestrian Mall between North Avenue and Miln Street. He said the “pedestrian mall improvement” is any local improvement designed to be used primarily for the movement, safety, convenience and enjoyment of pedestrians. Regarding approval from the commissioner, he added that the whole thing seemed to be a breakdown in communication.

“The township values our partnership with the Department of Transportation on a number of important projects in Cranford and regrets the apparent miscommunication regarding the Eastman Street Pedestrian Mall,” the letter said. “The Township Committee was led to believe that Transportation Commissioner Diane Gutierrez-Scaccetti was fully briefed on Ordinance 2021-09 during the May 10 site visit to Eastman Street.

“However, that may not have been the case, since neither the mayor, township administrator nor I learned of that site visit until after the fact.”

Even though the township welcomed the NJDOT’s expertise on the issues surrounding Cranford’s adoption of the ordinance and requested the opportunity to discuss this matter further, there is still an intention to carry out this ordinance.

“The use of such a street by private vehicles may be found by the governing body of any such municipality to be in the public interest of the municipality and state,” Cooper’s letter said. “This suggests that Cranford may unilaterally conclude that repurposing a public right-of-way that is not a state highway as a pedestrian mall is in the best interest of both the municipality and the state of New Jersey.”

Cooper said Ordinance 2021-09 is a local improvement ordinance and not a traffic regulation ordinance, and does not purport to regulate or manage traffic.

NJDOT Public Information Officer Brian Ahrens sent the following statement to Union County LocalSource on Tuesday, July 27: “The township of Cranford did not follow New Jersey statutes and New Jersey administrative code pertaining to the closure of a road, either temporarily or permanently, when it adjoins a state highway. This is a process that all municipalities and counties routinely follow in these matters. NJDOT offered Cranford a permit for outdoor dining utilizing ‘parklets,’ but the township opted to close the road instead.”