FLEMINGTON, NJ – The Borough Planning Board, acting in its companion role as a Board of Adjustment, began its review last night of the “living wall gateway monument” proposed to be built on the Route 202 traffic circle here.

The project would be built on the former Zippy Lube site on Route 202 South, which is where Nod’s Auto is now. It seeks multiple variances, such as from the borough’s sign ordinance, setback requirements and a hardship variance.

The timing of last night meeting was controversial. The hearing was originally set for last Tuesday, but was postponed at the request of the applicant, Mayor Betsy Driver said. Flemington Councilperson Chris Runion sought an additional delay so that the Borough  Environmental Commission, of which he is a member, could review the additional documents submitted by applicant Flemington Outdoor, LLC that he said left the Commission’s previous review “incomplete.”

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The meeting was held in the old Historic Courthouse, a county building that requires Freeholder approval for use. The Freeholder board actually approved its use at its meeting yesterday after the Planning Board had already begun to setup for its meeting, leading Freeholder Shaun Van Doren to note the lack of “timeliness” of the Planning Board’s request.

The Planning Board voted to grant the applicant a “temporary waiver” from the environmental information Runion sought to review. That rendered the application complete so that the hearing could begin; Planning Board member Susan Engelhardt said that such waivers are “not unprecedented. We’ve done this a million times” in the past.

The wall would include elaborate plantings – hence its designation as a “living” wall – with solar panels, the Borough’s seal, irrigation and three “visual communication technology” devices, which most people would probably call an electronic billboard utilizing LEDs.

Thaddeus Bartkowski, the CEO of Flemington Outdoor corporate parent Catalyst Outdoor Development, LLC, said his project was an “Opportunity for the borough to put its brand and its mark on a very prominent location in the community.”

The plan includes three electronic signs intended to target drivers with advertising. One would accommodate a standard 14-foot by 48-foot sign; two others would hold one 12-foot by 40-foot sign each. Because of the location of the signs on the wall, Bartkowski said any driver would only be able to see one sign at a time.

But the signs would not be used exclusively for commercial purposes. The borough would be allowed to post its own messages to be rotated among the signs – such as for community events – and the system would also be connected to the national Amber Alert system. The borough could also use the signs for its own urgent messages, such as for a road closure.

Critics have questioned whether it’s safe to install such signage on a heavily-trafficked circle. But Bartkowski, who was the only witness to testify yesterday, said the $2.2 million project would actually improve traffic safety by eliminating some of the existing vehicle access from the highway to the property.

And Bartkowski showed accident data collected both before and after similar projects were built. That data seemed to show that the roads were actually safer after the signs were built.

Bartkowski said that he didn’t believe that the improved safety record was attributable to his projects, but a consequence of the improved safety of cars over time. The living wall would be safety neutral, he said, but acknowledged this project would be his company’s first on a traffic circle.

The project’s hearing was continued until 7 p.m. Sept. 24 at Borough Hall. The Environmental Commission will review the applicant’s additional material at its meeting Sept. 16.

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