MONTVILLE, NJ – Towaco resident Dan Furia received preliminary approval from the Montville Township Planning Board on April 27 for a zoning change in the Towaco section of town that will allow him to build townhouses on land he owns there.
Furia had brought his proposed townhouse development and retail establishment application to the zoning board in August of 2015, but after a series of hearings, the application was denied in October of 2016. The zoning board stated it did not wish to re-zone the area, stating the act was out of its purview.
Furia’s proposal involved, after several revisions, retail establishments fronting on Main Road/Route 202 near the corner of Indian Hill Road, with apartments above, combined with a 20-unit townhouse complex to the rear.
Area residents opposed the plan, due to its proximity to the town’s source of drinking water, the Towaco Valley Aquifer. Furia presented testimony from hydrogeologist Vincent Uhl that the aquifer actually lies to the north and east of the proposed site.
On February 14, 2017, Furia had attorney Steven Schepis bring his application to the Montville Township Committee to ask for the area to be re-zoned. Currently the land is zoned for 20,000 square feet of retail space with apartments on the top floor. The committee voted unanimously to refer the re-zoning request to the planning board.
Schepis brought the application before the planning board on April 27, and Marc Walker of Dykstra Walker presented renderings of what could be constructed. Planning Board Chairman Gary Lewis explained to the public that the meeting was designed to be a “presentation,” not a public hearing, and the drawings were not under consideration.
“I want board members to not focus exclusively on that drawing or that layout,” Lewis said. “Any amendment [to the Towaco Center Master Plan] is words on the page. The plan will come later.”
Schepis explained that Furia had tried to find retail establishments for the conforming use for the land, but companies such as Kings, Trader Joes and Market Basket were not interested, especially since the building would have been located behind retail establishments directly on Route 202.
“It’s important for the board and public to consider,” Schepis said. “We’re not asking for a density increase over what the ordinance currently permits. We’re asking for a different housing type. Rather than having apartments over commercial, we feel owner-occupied townhouses, rather than rentals, would be a better use for this location.”
Schepis said that there is a high demand for apartments in Towaco. He presented Jim Stathis, owner and developer of Towaco Crossing, who said that all the apartments in the Crossing have been rented, whereas some of the retail space lies empty. Schepis said it would not be good for the area to build a large commercial building but then not be able to rent it out. Real estate agent Bob Gannon, also called by Schepis to testify, predicted if the building were constructed, it would be converted to all residential within five to ten years. Schepis predicted less traffic resulting from residential townhouses than a commercial property development.
“If they don’t change the zoning, Mr. Furia is going to have no choice but to come in with a conforming plan,” Schepis said. “This man has been sitting on this property for four years and paying taxes. He has all the permits from the state, so he has to do something. The township wants to see this area developed in some regard. […] We believe it’s better for the township and better for the project to apply for this modification.”
Schepis was referring to the 2008 Towaco Center Master Plan, which was designed to “facilitate economic redevelopment of Towaco.” The idea was to “create a mixed-use transit-oriented area containing compatible residential and commercial mixed land uses in a compact design that will serve commuters utilizing the Towaco train station.”
Joseph Burgis, the board’s Professional Planner, explained that there was a lot of discussion regarding townhouses at the meetings that led to the establishment of the TCMP, but eventually it had been decided to exclude townhouses from the Plan.
Burgis said that when the TCMP was designed in 2008, a lot of suppositions were made but then the recession occurred and “a lot of things changed.”
Burgis said that the proposed use for the land would result in fewer than 40 trips on the property during peak hours, referring to traffic data, whereas the permitted use (retail) would result in double that. He said as far as environmental issues, there are a “lot of hoops” that the applicant would have to jump through to satisfy the state and local ordinances. He felt that, using school district formulas, only 7 or 8 school children would result from the proposed project.
Burgis recommended amending the TCMP if the board voted to recommend rezoning the property, since there are no townhouse regulations in the Plan.
Lewis said, “I get antsy when I hear about empty buildings.” He then asked Burgis about shopping trends and Burgis concurred with statements Schepis made earlier, that shoppers are doing more internet shopping. Burgis concurred with testimony that the rear building as envisioned in the TCMP lacks the visibility that would attract shoppers.
“People aren’t shopping the way they used to,” Burgis said. “They go to restaurants and entertainment. They don’t do the type of shopping we contemplated in 2007 [when the TCMP was designed].”
Burgis also felt that the proposed rezoning would further the TCMP by meeting three goals: providing various housing types, creating mixed use areas (because of Furia’s retail building proposed for 202 frontage), and a gathering area for Towaco center. The plans shown at the meeting included an area behind the retail buildings with a gazebo, but are to be considered potential and not final. The plans also included a building height that at least one board member objected to.
Board Member Adam Adrignolo said, “I sat through the Zoning Board meetings and I heard the concerns of the residents. I think it’s a good idea to allow this re-zoning. It’s ‘down-zoning.’ There will be less traffic. The aquifer is our primary concern, but it will be taken care of – there will be fewer parking spaces. With an anchor shopping center there would be more noise. We should have a food store in Montville, but here is not the spot. The applicant amended the plan to residents’ concerns and now there are open spaces. There’s no adverse impact to the schools. Fewer people are shopping brick and mortar retail. Someone should guard the height. But I think it’s a great idea that helps residents. I don’t see any negative impact.”
Board Member John Visco said he was in favor of the change to the TCMP. “If you have a plan, sometimes you change what you think. You have to be flexible.”
Board Member Nicholas Agnoli said he had significant concerns about the height, especially in the back of the complex because of its proximity to Brook Lane.
Board Member Lawrence Kornreich called the open space area “ridiculous” because of its location behind the retail buildings. “It needs to be accessible,” he said.
Board Member Russell Lipari said that he was also concerned about the view the neighbors behind the development would have, but he thought that more residents would help the retail establishments in the area.
The board voted unanimously to have Burgis prepare a draft ordinance and land use amendment. The Montville Township Committee must pass the ordinance in order for re-zoning to take effect, and the recommendation of the Planning Board is non-binding. The voters were: Adrignolo, Agnoli, Kornreich, Lewis, Lipari, and Visco. Mayor Jim Sandham was not at the meeting, Township Committee Member Richard Conklin recused himself because he resides close to the property in question, and Tim Braden and Arthur Maggio were absent.