BERNARDS TWP., NJ - A plan for an expansion and updating of the Fellowship Village Senior Living healthcare center, as well as a multi-purpose community center where Trilogy Theater Company will be based in residence, was approved, 4-3, by the Bernards Planning Board on Tuesday night.

The board's approval follows two-and-a-half years of public hearings, including recent public comment that indicated a sharp divide among residents for and against the expansion and new building on the 72-acre Fellowship Village property off Allen Road.

The three board members who voted against the proposal said they would have voted yes except for the inclusion of a so-called raised "fly tower" over the stage of a planned new 21,000-square-foot theater and community center.

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"In my opinion, the fly tower sticks out like a sore thumb," said board member Paula Axt.

But Planning Board President Jeffrey Plaza, in agreement with the majority of board members, said he did "not have a problem" with the fly tower, from which stage settings, backdrops, and even a movie screen on which movies could be shown for residents, could be lowered.

He said the fly tower -- which would be similar to, but lower and narrower than the raised part of the building over the stage at Ridge High School's Performing Arts Center -- is part of providing residents with a first-class arts center.

In his closing arguments, however, Fellowship Village Attorney Vincent Bisogno stressed that the multi-purpose community center and theater would be used for internal events serving Fellowship Village residents 90 percent of the time.

Those evens will include movie nights, memorial and religious services, and even productions put on by the residents themselves, supporters of the project said.

The 55,000-expansion that is intended to be added onto the existing healthcare center will modernize and create new studio, and one- or two-bedroom units for residents of Fellowship Village in assisted living housing, according to the plans.

The expansion and changes in the assisting living area of the healthcare center will add some much-needed additional beds for elderly residents with dementia or other forms of memory loss, according to Brian Lawrence, president and chief executive officer of Fellowship Village.

Following the board's approval, Lawrence said Fellowship Village will try to obtain construction permits by this fall. The expansion and new building would be constructed as per a 36-month "phased approach" that would minimize impact on residents, Lawrence said.

"I think it will be a wonderful project that will affect so many lives," Lawrence said.

In an interview on Monday, he addressed some of what he said were misinterpretations of information discussed at meetings. For example, he said that the "household" model for assisted living units at the healthcare center would allow residents to chose from studio, one-bedroom or a two-bedroom model, but would add share living room and gathering areas without taking away from the privacy of those living in their own units.

'Don't know' if will appeal the decision

George Schenk, a Fellowship Village resident who with his wife Maya, were vocal critics of the plan, said immediately following the vote that he doesn't know if he will seek to overturn the Planning Board's approval by filing an appeal in state Superior Court.

Among the reasons for his disagreement with the board's vote, Schenk said the plan did not address how the changes at the health center would affect staffing. He added that he did not believe the applicant had submitted a traffic circulation plan for additional traffic on the site.

Afterward, Planning Board Attorney Jonathan Drill said the applicant (Fellowship Village Senior Living) had submitted a traffic circulation plan as part of a traffic impact study, but had also testified about traffic circulation during the hearings, as well as presenting exhibits.

During his comments, Board Member Randy Santoro, who voted in favor of approval of the project, said he felt the Schenks had lengthened the proceedings while they "inundated" the board with information without regard to relevance.

Bernards Township Committeeman John Malay, who also is a member of the Planning Board, said he felt that Fellowship Village had met its "burden of proof" in presenting evidence for the application. For example, he said the plan meets requirements for parking, and he also believes there will be "fine-tuning" of the plans as the process of building is ongoing.

Malay also asked that admission to the plays or other performances at the community center/theater be free for residents, but dropped that request as Plaza pointed out that a quality theater production could have some costs.

However, earlier during the hearings, Fellowship Village had agreed that residents would have the first opportunity to buy tickets for performances, and the ticket costs for residents at Fellowship Village would be discounted.

"I am just relieved that our long wait is over, and we are looking forward to the next phase," Jaye Barre, president of the township-based Trilogy Repertory Company, said following the vote. Trilogy has plans to present two plays per year at the new community center, which would be different from the productions that the locally based theater group presents each summer at Pleasant Valley Park in Basking Ridge.

Planners have said that one production per month, although possibly with multiple stagngs, would also be open to the public as well as residents of Fellowship Village.