BERNARDS TWP., NJ - The public had a first chance to speak up--but only on the topic of parking and traffic--on Fellowship Village Senior Living's plan for a health center expansion and community center/theater following about two dozen Planning Board hearings.

March 22 is set as the next scheduled public hearing before the Planning Board on the proposed 55,000-square-foot addition to the health center, as well as the construction of a new 21,000-square community center. The board also set an additional date of May 3 for the continuation of hearing the application from Fellowship Village, a retirement community located off Allen Road.

On Tuesday night, some residents of the senior living establishment, and also speakers whose parents live at Fellowship Village, expressed concern that there already is a parking shortage even before an expansion, and that a new community center could create periodic traffic problems. 

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Others told the board that a community center, with some theatrical performances, would be an asset to Fellowship Village, and that the plan would also improve the community's parking situation.

"We all know we have a parking problem," said Fellowship Village Elizabeth Ryman. "It's not going to get solved unless we get this project underway."

But at the same meeting, some members of the township Planning Board also offered a critique of the applicant's parking drawings that will send Fellowship Village experts back to the drawing board.

Planning Board member Paula Axt said she had visited the health center a number of times, and observed, "I don't think there's enough parking at the health center even without an expansion."

She added that she doesn't think 80 planned parking spaces near the proposed 240-seat community center would be sufficient, especially if along with the audience an orchestra or larger theater ensemble was competing for parking spaces.

Other board members asked for additional 10-foot-wide parking spaces, that give room to elderly passengers to comfortably exit vehicles, and an elimination or reduction in number of 37 parking spots restricted to compact cars.

Any modifications to the parking plan in the application would be due before next meeting.

Henri Barre, director of development for Basking Ridge-based Trilogy Repertory Co., which has plans to use the community center, said the applicant has been trying to satisfy requirements for parking for the previous two dozen or so meetings.

Afterwards, Gary Dean of Dolan and Dean, traffic engineer for the applicant, said that actually 118 parking spots are planned for the community center area, of which 66 would be on blacktop and 52 overflow spaces would be on a stabilized but grassy area.

Even so, Eleanor Dorland, a Fellowship Village, recalled a night that she had fallen and required transportation to a hospital. 

If a theater presentation is held, vehicles all would be leaving at about the same time of the night, she observed. "What if an ambulance comes while we have a mass of people leaving Fellowship Village?"

She added that vehicles leaving the theater also could cause a disturbance and shine headlights on people who live nearby. She said that was not what she expected when she moved into Fellowship Village.

Other commenters said that bushes would shield the headlights from residences, and said that a similar community theater/center is successfully operating at a retirement community in another state.

Jean Direk said many residents are in favor of the plan. She said the present auditorium, where residents can meet for events, holds at most 80 people, especially with room needed for wheelchairs. Plans for the new community center all for a flexible floor plan that would allow it to be used for a variety of meetings and events for Fellowship Village residents.

There was also some disagreement over the current and planned parking situation at the health center, which also provides housing for residents who need additional health services.

Steven Fulda, a Fellowship Village resident, said he sees empty parking spots at the facility.

But Debbie Shenker, who said her mother lives at Fellowship Village, said parking at the health center is especially difficult during shift changes for the staff at about 1 to 3 p.m., and she has seen vehicles parked in illegal spots during that time.

Ken Post, vice-president of plant operations, said the current size of the health center, now about 110,000 square feet, would be increased by about a third with the expansion, but only 14 new beds would be added for residents. He added that common areas would make up much of the new addition, and said the plan has been to add 23 more parking spaces if the expansion is approved by the Planning Board.

Planning Board meetings begin at 7:30 p.m. at the municipal building at 1 Collyer Lane in Basking Ridge.