Because of an apparent misunderstanding, signs went up Thursday barring left turns from Park Street onto Watchung Avenue at the busy intersection where the roads meet Watchung Plaza — even though the signs haven’t yet been approved. 

Montclair Township and Essex County have both approved signage that eliminates left turns from Watchung Plaza where the one-way road exits onto Watchung Avenue. Township officials had planned in May to broach the idea of banning left turns from Park Street onto Watchung Avenue as well. But signs were put up Thursday barring both left turns — even though the matter of Park Street and Watchung Avenue hasn’t yet come up for a vote. 

​​The intersection is bordered by a busy shopping area and park, and is heavily traveled by store patrons as well as students attending nearby Montclair High School and Watchung School.

In an effort to calm traffic in the area, which has seen numerous accidents and near-misses, the Township Council on Tuesday, April 19 passed on second reading an ordinance that bans left turns from the one-way Watchung Plaza road onto Watchung Avenue. The council also passed a resolution making the change immediate, instead of having it go into effect 20 days after the ordinance vote, as is typical procedure. 

The Essex County Commissioners passed a resolution the next day adopting a resolution consenting to the change, as the roadways belong to the county.   

The day after that, the county placed the signs on both Park Street and Watchung Plaza. 

Councilman Peter Yacobellis, who had penned the township’s ordinance, said on Thursday county officials must have misunderstood the ordinance that was approved on April 19. 

“Our intention this week was only to approve the right turn only from the Watchung Plaza roadway onto Watchung Avenue going east; not from southbound Park St. onto Watchung Ave. going west, as well,” Yacobellis said. “That’s something that we were considering but hadn’t yet taken formal action on. Somewhere along the line there was a misunderstanding between our team and the county team and we’re trying to figure it out and correct the situation.”

Montclair’s ordinance amends the township’s vehicle and traffic code to specify “limited right-turn only and [to prohibit] through and left-hand turn movements out of Watchung Plaza at the intersection of Watchung Avenue, Park Street and Watchung Plaza.”

County Engineer Sanjieev Varghese, in a memo, had recommended the commissioners adopt a resolution consenting to “the intent set forth in the Township of Montclair's ordinance as it pertains to Watchung Avenue (County Route 655) and Park Street/Watchung Plaza.”

“The resolution supports the township's request for the placement of right-turn-only traffic signs at the intersection in order to prohibit through and left-hand turn movements out of Watchung Plaza and Park Street.”

Essex County Executive Joseph N. DiVincenzo, in a statement provided by a county spokesperson, acknowledged Montclair hadn’t yet passed an ordinance to prevent left turns from Park Street onto Watchung Avenue, but said the township had been expected to introduce one on April 19, then didn’t. The statement didn’t address why the sign had gone up or what steps would be taken next. 

Essex County Commissioner and Montclair resident Brenden Gill said that the safety of Montclair residents has always been his primary concern as a public servant. 

“The Montclair Town Council acted swiftly in proposing and passing an emergency resolution to change the traffic pattern at Watchung Plaza, and the Essex County Board of Commissioners, and administration through the actions of the Department of Public Works, acted just as swiftly in adopting the resolution and immediately putting up new traffic signage to make the area safer,” Gill said about the speed in which the signs went up. 

While some residents called the banning of left turns at Watchung Plaza a reasonable first step to making the area safer, about nine North Fullerton Avenue residents called into the April 19 council meeting to say they were against the plan to ban left turns there, and were concerned with increased traffic on residential streets.

They asked that the council wait for a full traffic study, which county officials have agreed to expedite, before implementing any temporary measures.

Councilwoman Robin Schlager met with North Fullerton Avenue residents the evening before the council meeting and said she heard their concerns, but voted through the ordinance banning the left turns.

No left is now allowed on Watchung Plaza where it exits onto Watchung Avenue. (COURTESY PETER YACOBELLIS)

Schlager said she wants the study to be prioritized and expedited. 

“Perhaps there won’t be a need for a left-hand turn out of Watchung Plaza, and that there will be a rotary or a light. And hopefully that will be a perfect world that will give us some results here” she said.

Mayor Sean Spiller said county engineers had recommended banning left turns “to do something, and then come up with a broader study that will be more global.”

Councilman David Cummings said that traffic studies take a long time, and that this study in particular should not be rushed.

“I hope the team behind this takes the time and gives us comprehensive results,” he said. The prohibition of left turns from Watchung Plaza was “a good idea to do right now,” Cummings added.

The council voted unanimously in favor of the ordinance. 

In March, Robert Genovese, who owns Local Coffee at the intersection of Watchung Avenue and Watchung Plaza, started an online petition asking that the study be expedited. As of April 21, it had garnered 1,027 signatures. He has gathered articles going back 50 years that refer to the intersection as dangerous and calling for traffic designs.