MONTVILLE, NJ – An ordinance change permitting townhouses was made to the Land Use Regulations at the Aug. 15 Montville Township Committee meeting, following months of debate by the Zoning Board, Planning Board, residents and Township Committee.
The area in question is located in Towaco, near the train station. Towaco resident Dan Furia purchased land bordered by Route 202, Indian Hill Road and Brook Lane and wished to build on approximately three of the nine acres, but townhouses are not in the zoning regulations.
He brought an application to the Zoning Board which was rejected as a zoning change, then his attorney, Steven Schepis, brought the application to the Planning Board to request a zoning change.
Residents have been very much against the development due to reasons such as traffic, concerns about the Towaco aquifer, which is the town’s source of drinking water, and species located in the woods currently located on the property.
The Planning Board accepted the zoning change, which needed to then have a public hearing and be voted into ordinance by the township committee.
The original use for the land, as per the 2010 Master Plan, would be a large retail unit with apartments above, but Schepis stated this would represent more traffic and noise to adjacent neighbors. He also stated that Furia had a hard time finding retail companies interested in leasing the property due to its location behind other retail on Route 202/Main Road.
“This property is very valuable, and this change would be much better than the alternative,” Schepis said. “These would be owner-occupied units, with higher-end usage, and less density. A restaurant, for example, would use a lot more water. These would all be two-bedroom units with no more than four units per building.”
Schepis said the Master Plan states that a residential component is necessary in order to support the commercial/retail component provided for in the desired “Towaco Transit Village” that is the ultimate goal for Towaco, and these townhouses provide that.
Resident Scott Russell opposed either the large retail building or the townhouses, stating neither was a good fit for Towaco. He desired to have the candidates for township committee debate the merits of the plan and wait until January to make a decision, because in August, many residents are on vacation and unable to attend the meeting.
Mayor Jim Sandham said that government doesn’t stop, and this situation has been discussed for many years.
Resident Emily Reisig stated her concerns that there are “for sale” signs all over town, and the units would not sell, but Schepis said that “new construction sells.”
Former Mayor John Rosellini stated that retail and apartments – not townhouses – create the desired transit village. He didn’t like the “spot zoning” the ordinance change represented, and he disagreed with the exit driveway’s location away from a traffic light.
“There’s more questions than answers here, and it took a lot of effort to come up with the Master Plan of 2010,” he said.
Sandham said that the economic times have changed greatly, along with the face of retail. James Stathis, the owner of Towaco Crossing and the Rails Steakhouse, has testified that the stores in his development have vacancies whereas the apartments are all rented, Sandham said. Sandham agreed with Schepis that the townhouses would be the least invasive regarding traffic and noise to the adjacent neighbors
Township Committee Member Deb Nielson agreed that the economy has changed, and stated that owner-occupied is a win-win for the town.
Township Attorney Fred Semrau deemed the ordinance change to not be spot-zoning, and Township Administrator Victor Canning stated that the state’s official definition of transit villages is simply shopping and living without the use of vehicles; no mention of apartment living vs. townhouses is mentioned in the definition.
“We’ve done our homework on this and we didn’t undertake this lightly,” Sandham said of the transit village idea.
Matthew Kayne stated his concerns about the aquifer, but prior testimony brought up by Sandham has stated that aquifer expert Vincent Uhl, says the aquifer will actually be recharged due to the storm water management system previously proposed for the development (read about the testimony here). Nielson said an information session regarding the aquifer will be held in the fall. Sandham said the aquifer is 5.6 square miles, or 3600 acres, whereas this development would impact three of those acres.
Resident Sarah Stalker said the land was purchased already knowing the zoning, and she was concerned about the wildlife on the property.
“It seems like developers can just ignore the zoning because it will just be changed,” she said.
In their deliberations, Committee Member Richard Cook said that Towaco Crossing has become a great part of our town and the townhouse plan will have a lesser impact on the area. Deputy Mayor Frank Cooney said he liked the small plazas that are part of the plan and a large commercial/retail building would be too hard to rent out. Nielson said the Master Plan has effectuated a change in Towaco, but the economy is undergoing “growing pains.”
“This is a slight departure from the original [Master Plan],” she said. “I have a land use background and if I thought this was a detriment to our aquifer I would not be voting for this.”
The ordinance change passed unanimously although Committee Member Richard Conklin recused himself because of the proximity of his home to the proposed development.
Sandham thanked the public for their civility.
“This is democracy in action,” he said.