MONTVILLE, NJ – The Montville Township Zoning Board of Adjustments has heard testimony at three public hearings regarding an application to build 349 non-age-restricted rental units on the former site of GI Auto Salvage in the Pine Brook section of town.

During the Dec. 7, 2016 meeting, attorney John Inglesino began testimony by stating Avalon Bay Communities, LLC, has purchased the property at 85 Bloomfield Avenue. The site was a junkyard for 50 years and has soil contamination, he said, according to the minutes of the meeting published by the township. Age-restricted housing is a permitted use for the site, but the applicant is proposing non-age restricted units, thus requiring the hearings. If the use variance is approved, Avalon Bay will file site plans in the future, meaning, no formal drawings of the proposed building and facilities exist. However, the company is proposing 36 studio apartments, 124 one-bedroom apartments, 156 two-bedroom apartments, and 33 three-bedroom apartments, according to the minutes from the Feb. 1, 2017 zoning board meeting. The rents would be approximately $1,600 for the studios, ranging to $3,000 for the three-bedroom, according to March 16 meeting testimony.

Avalon Bay’s professional engineer and civil engineer, Kevin Boswell, then provided a background on the site, stating that a Lowes Home Improvement store had been approved for the site in 2008, but Lowes had canceled the project. The site has been in the process of being cleaned up, and that clean-up is ongoing, according to the minutes. Parking of cars, then storage of wooden pallets and mats have been allowed on the site.

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The proposed footprint of the project is “significantly smaller than the previously approved Lowes project,” Boswell testified, per the minutes. The area to be redeveloped for Lowes was 18 acres, whereas the current proposal is for 14 acres. The apartment building footprint is 143,000 square feet, whereas the Lowes building was proposed at 217,000. Avalon Bay’s professional engineer, Jeff Morris, testified that this would be a residential building wrapped around a four-story parking garage, according to the minutes. The site could be accessed from Bloomfield Avenue but with no exit back onto Bloomfield, whereas access from Route 46 would be both entrance and exit, making Route 46 the primary access.

Architect Ed Bradford also testified for Avalon Bay, stating that there would be residential wings with six landscaped courtyards, according to the board’s minutes. Originally a height variance was applied for, 52 feet where 48 are allowed, but this was later withdrawn. The building would be four stories.

“The primary goal is to achieve a design for the building that has a very strong residential scale,” Bradford is attributed as stating at the hearing. The building is proposed to include dormers and balconies, while the facilities include a pool, fitness center and club room comprising 7,500 square feet of amenities. There will be 353 spaces in the garage and 328 spaces around the site, Jeff Morris, Professional Engineer, testified for Avalon Bay. Inglesino stated that the company will meet the 20% affordable units requirement, according to the minutes.

At the Feb. 1, 2017 meeting, Scott Fishbone, Vice President of Avalon Bay Communities, testified that each garage is fully enclosed, with a separate garage door for each resident. Each apartment would have a full-sized washer and dryer and individual climate controls, the minutes attribute Fishbone as stating.

Traffic Engineer Gary Ascolese testified for Avalon Bay that he had reviewed the ingress and egress to the site, and found them to be “safe and efficient access,” according to the minutes from the meeting.

“Most uses permitted in the B-6 zone would have higher trip generations than this apartment proposal,” Ascolese is attributed as saying. “The network of streets can handle this project.”

However, when the board asked questions of the professionals, emergency vehicle access seemed to be an issue.

At the December meeting, Board Member Kurt Dinkelmeyer asked about emergency vehicle access and Inglesino replied, according to the minutes, that that would be handled at the site plan stage of the project, since at this time only use variance is being applied for. However, Board Attorney Bruce Ackerman stated that safety is a factor in the board’s determination. Board Professional Engineer Paul Ferriero stated his concerns that emergency vehicles would have to take a “long detour to access the site in case of an emergency,” according to the minutes. Inglesino replied that the proposed building “meets RSIS standards and are not required to improve a bridge that is owned by the county,” the minutes state. RSIS stands for Residential Site Improvement Standards and are statewide standards for improvements to residential developments.

“Safety is a legitimate concern for emergency services when you are arguing that the site is particularly suitable to [residential] use,” Ackerman replied, according to the minutes.

When Dinkelmeyer asked about emergency vehicle access later in the meeting, Inglesino replied “Avalon Bay will not restrict the route the emergency vehicles [use to] access the site,” and that they can access it in “any way they require,” according to the minutes.

“It is up to the emergency services to decide how to access the site,” Inglesino stated, per the minutes.

At the March 16, 2017 meeting, Jeffrey Otteau of The Otteau Group, testified regarding the economic viability of age-restricted housing, which is what the site is zoned for, among other uses. His company performed a demographic study of age-restricted vs. non-age-restricted housing in Montville and surrounding communities.

Otteau said that the state of New Jersey is “underperforming,” lacking in job creation, and has the highest rate of mortgage delinquencies and foreclosures. Home prices are 17% below their peak, he said, all of which have a significant impact on the real estate market. One such factor, he said, is that New Jersey has one of the highest migration rates in the country, meaning, many households are moving out of the state.

“In Montville, you’re experiencing an accelerated decline in the 45-54 years of age bracket, which is significant to age-restricted housing, because it is the target demographic,” Otteau said. “The banking community is not willing to finance age-restricted projects.”

Further, age-restricted apartments have lower rents, which are not economically viable to build, he said.

All-age, or non-age-restricted developments, have a booming rental market, Otteau said. The vacancy rate is low, and rents increase from year to year. These apartments would be “geared to higher income households, making at least $90,000,” he said.

With rents ranging from $1,600 to $3,000 for a three-bedroom, Otteau said, a family would be able to afford a $500,000 home, and would not be interested in an apartment, he said. He called the tenant community in similar Avalon Bay developments “overwhelmingly childless.”

“Families with children will opt out,” Otteau said.

When Chairman James Marinello asked about the effect on the school system, Otteau stated the “effect would approach zero.”

The apartments would typically be inhabited by higher income renters in their 30s or older-age empty nesters, according to Otteau. They would have “significant income to spend at local businesses” because they would have no lawns to mow or other maintenance issues to take their time, he said.

When the public portion of the hearing commenced, residents stated concerns with the impact on the school system. Otteau responded that the occupancy demographics of typical Avalon Bay communities are very different from apartment complexes such as Rachel Gardens, because Rachel Gardens is larger, and the rents are about $1,000 lower at Rachel Gardens.

Testimony on this proposal will continue at the May 3 Zoning Board meeting.