MONTVILLE, NJ – Rails Steakhouse in Towaco has been approved for additional seating by the Montville Township Planning Board, along with the use of a new party room.

However, Principal of Towaco Crossing James Stathis insists that the new seating granted, which was fewer than Rails had applied for, will only be used for private functions.

The sticking point between the number of additional seats the popular steakhouse applied for and what was actually granted proved to be a parking formula for the multi-use building, in addition to residents’ and board members concerns about additional traffic and noise at the building, which is located next to the Towaco train station.

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Towaco Crossing, the name for the building which contains Rails plus six apartments and six commercial or retail spaces, opened in January of 2015 and according to the application Rails filed with the township, Stathis would like to repurpose 1,200 square feet of unused storage into the “Rails Wine Cave.”

Stathis said at the Nov. 20, 2017 hearing the Cave would be a facility used for private functions such as birthday parties, with pre-arranged menus. He said the Cave would not be used for “a la carte” seating because that would sacrifice the Rails dining experience for customers. He wanted to use the Cave on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays for private functions and expects to seat 24. He said it would be used typically between 5 p.m. and 10 p.m.

“It’s inspired by Napa, from when I visited California,” Stathis said. “If you don’t keep dining experiences fresh, customers won’t come back, so this adds a new option.”

The original architect for the site, Anthony Garrett, testified at the hearing that there would be no exterior modifications to the restaurant since the plan is to repurpose existing basement space.

In addition to the Cave application, the application was for approval of additional seating.

Part of the problem for the new seating is the parking. There is a formula, according to township ordinance, for computing the necessary number of parking spaces for a site, according to the use of the site, and Towaco Crossing has three uses: retail, residential apartments, and the restaurant.

There are six apartments which necessitates 12 parking spots, according to Garrett. The almost 7,000 square feet of retail necessitates 35 spots. The restaurant zoning is three dining seats per spot, which can be changed at the discretion of the township. There are 40 parking spots at the site, 44 valet spots, plus 11 on Whitehall Road (there are six employee spaces outside the kitchen door), which adds to 95. But the parking spaces can be shared, according to township ordinance, since, for example, the residents may leave during the day when shoppers utilize parking for retail shopping.

Stathis has made it part of the retail tenants’ lease requirements that they must close shop at 7 p.m., which frees up more spots (the 35 retail spots) to be used by Rails. Further, Stathis testified that it is very hard to fill the commercial spaces because of big box retailers and non-compete clauses with the other businesses currently renting. Stathis testified that the lunch hour is almost empty at the restaurant, but instead the evening hours are peak hours. Therefore, during the day, the parking lot is rather empty.

Therefore with an additional 35 spots freed up after 7 p.m., the application requested an additional 35 spots x 3 seats per spot, or 105. The restaurant is currently allowed to have 144 seats by ordinance, so the application was for 144 plus the additional 105, or 249. Rails was asking for the 249 seating allowance after 7 p.m. only; the 144 maximum would remain in effect between morning opening and 7 p.m.

Stathis also estimated that 25 percent of customers utilized Uber ride-sharing service to dine at Rails, but the board said this number could not be substantiated or used in parking calculations.

Stathis said the additional seating requested is for “flexibility if we have multiple private parties,” not for a la carte diners.

“We’re not going to add tables,” Stathis said. “Our restriction is based on our kitchen; how much they can output. We’re already maxed out. It would be detrimental to service and quality of food if we tried to serve more. We have 60 different seats in storage that we swap out that are 18 inches wide as opposed to our 24-inch chairs [for private parties].”

The New Jersey Transit train station lot next to Rails is used by many customers to park in when they dine at Rails, instead of utilizing the valet service. Stathis assured the board that Towaco Crossing has a good relationship with NJ Transit, and that they knew how the parking lot was being used. Towaco Crossing has an insurance policy in place naming NJ Transit as “additionally insured,” Stathis said.

However, Planning Board Engineer Stan Omland of Bowman Engineering said, “If NJ Transit bars you from having people parking there [in the evening], you’re in a bad place.”

Stathis said parking is self-governing, in that, if people pull up and there’s no place to park, people will dine elsewhere. He said he has spoken to the animal hospital and when they’re ready to sell, Towaco Crossing is ready to buy their property. Further, he said if the NJ Transit parking lot were not available, he would talk to the owners of the other area businesses and come up with a plan, including utilizing the fire station parking lot or the city-owned property across the street. He said NJ Transit refuses to offer an agreement in perpetuity.

Omland requested to see a floor plan showing how the maximum number of people would be seated. Stathis, when asked, said the fire department and board of health had been consulted and approved the increase.

Traffic engineer John Desch testified that he flew a drone above the site on a Friday night and found plenty of open parking, and counted a total of 300 spots to be available for parking overall when one included the NJ Transit parking lot.

Residents who commented and asked questions of the witnesses expressed concerns about the traffic that increased seating would represent. One resident said she had witnessed many potential auto accidents. Another resident stated it is very dangerous when cars U-turn on Whitehall Road in front of Rails. Another resident said that NJ Transit does not pay taxes for the parking lot, so if a benefit can be gained from the parking lot’s existence – it’s a good thing. A resident who lives across the street was unhappy with the current level of noise at the building.

With regard to the traffic concerns, the board discussed the danger of the hump at the intersection of Whitehall Road and Pine Brook Road and the blinking traffic light that exists there. Former mayor Jim Sandham, who is a member of the planning board, suggested petitioning the county to have the light changed to a regular three-light traffic light to make the area safer.

Current mayor Richard Conklin, also a member of the planning board, made the motion to approve the application with two seats in the restaurant per 35 parking spaces, or 70, to be added to Rails’ allowed maximum seating, which totals 214 seats, contingent on Rails supplying the board with a floor plan reflecting these numbers. The Cave was also approved for operation. This motion was passed unanimously.

The resolution was adopted at the Jan. 11, 2018 meeting, according to board secretary Jane Mowles-Rodriguez.

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