I’m going to take a break from my usual ramblings about Bridgewater to instead talk about something nearer and dearer to my bloodline. As absolutely none of you are aware, I prefer to write posts about Urban Planning as it relates to me, rather than topics that I have no relation towards. With that in mind, let’s talk about Morristown’s Kleitman Park.
If you’ve never been to Kleitman Park, let me paint a quick word picture: a big tract of undeveloped land still owned by wilderness at the heart of Morristown, where the trees still grow like a forest, the hills end in steep cliffs, and adventure lies around every corner; really just a wonderful place for kids and families. It’s also a fairly recent thing. A little under 2 years ago, I had the pleasure of attending the park’s opening/groundbreaking ceremony. Why? Because I just so happen to be relatively close cousins with the Kleitmans. This gives me a unique perspective on the park’s creation, as well as what it means for planning.
If you are to take anything from the following story, let it be this: planning, like everything else, involves politics. But politics is not necessarily frivolous; it results from different people wanting different things, and the effect this can have on a town is monumental.
The story takes place over three generations of my family. It started with my great great uncle Milton, who owned and lived on the land back in 1942. He and his sons after him kept the land beautiful and green. They didn’t sell, didn’t let anyone develop, and kept their house (according to my mother) “half the size of a Cape Cod.” Basically, they loved the land the way it was, and wanted to keep it that way. According to a rumor from my cousin Naomi, Milton and his sons wanted the land to be a park, if it came to that. I guess, in the end, the land achieved its destiny.
Man wonderful memories came from those hills over the years. Morristown’s annual 4th of July fireworks were perfectly easy to see from the hillside. The land was perfect for my family’s children (including my young mother) to go exploring. It all seemed enormous to my mom and her cousins, and the land captured their imagination for years to come. Even after the Kleitmans stopped living on the property, people would come and look up at the sky anyway.
Eventually, the land went to the general Kleitman family, who are the cousins I know now. While the house and the land represented a lot of good memories, it also represented a significant business opportunity. At this point, my cousin Naomi and her siblings were – to put it nicely – not young. Naomi’s siblings all had kids, and some extra money to put them through college would not have been unwelcome. The house, being tiny, would be of interest to no one on the market. The property, however, would be wonderful for a developer, since it’s right at the heart of Morristown and completely undeveloped. The family’s goal: sell to a developer, get their kids a good education free of any and all debt, and let the family keep going.
Enter The Neighbor, a guy who loved the property the way it was. He was one of those people who came to the hilltop to watch fireworks, who appreciated the greenery the way it was, and loved how it looked from his window (and, probably, how the view added to his own property value). This guy didn’t want the land developed, and fought to get it turned into a park.
So there were two sides: my family, who wanted to sell the property to a developer and use the money to help put their kids through college; and the Neighbor, who wanted the property to be purchased by the town, converted into a park, and kept the way it was for his pleasure. To be honest, both sides are a little bit selfish, but you can understand both from a meta-perspective. The current generation of my family, that wanted the money for their kids. The Neighbor and (spiritually) my great great uncle, who wanted the land preserved because they loved it the way it was. Both worked for love, and for their own self-interests. You can’t really say anyone was in the wrong or right here, or at least, I wouldn’t.
Anyway, the Neighbor got the town to issue an ordinance “prohibiting development of steeply sloped tracts”. This essentially prevented anyone from being able to build on what would become Kleitman Park. Those hills are almost cliffs; so steep that if you fell from the top, you’d roll into the street.
The property was suddenly valueless. No developer would buy if it meant a long and costly battle with the town for a variance. In the end, the town made a deal with the Kleitmans to buy the property (very cheaply, I’m afraid) and turn it into the park Milton and his sons wanted.
Hence Kleitman Park, a monument to my family’s…something. I don’t know. I’m not particularly banged up about it. I just thought it was interesting that the desires of two seemingly unimportant groups of people could affect a town so drastically. I mean, Kleitman Park is a big undeveloped piece of land in the heart of Morristown. That’s a pretty big deal. And I don’t know that I would call my family “important” in the overall grand scheme of the universe, yet here we are making decisions that will affect Morristown for generations to come. I guess what I’m trying to say is that planning can be affected by things completely out of left field, including the citizens of wherever the planning is happening. Woe be it to the planner who ignores the people and just tries to change the town to his/her own vision.