Business & Finance

Townhouses in Towaco Discussed by Montville Township Committee

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Dan Furia and his associates present his proposal for townhouses to be built in Towaco.  From left to right, Attorney Steven Schepis, Marc Walker, Principal at Dykstra Walker, Furia seated behind Walker.  Deputy Mayor Richard Conklin recused himself from the proceedings since he lives near the proposed development, and he is seated at the far right in the audience. Credits: Melissa Benno
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Current lot being considered for development on Indian Hill Road in Towaco, NJ. Credits: Melissa Benno
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MONTVILLE, NJ - About fifty people gathered to attend the Montville Township Committee meeting held at the municipal building on Feb. 10. Read about the budget discussion from the meeting HERE.

Following the Administrator’s, Attorney’s, and liaison reports, as well as a prepared statement by Deputy Mayor Richard Conklin, attorney Steven Schepis, planner Marc Walker, and Towaco resident and landowner Dan Furia came to the front of the room to discuss Furia’s project proposal for land he owns in the Towaco section of the Township.  Furia owns approx nine acres in the block that is surrounded by Main Road (202), Waughaw Road, and Indian Hill Road, behind the businesses on Main Road. (Read the proposal HERE)

According to the Township’s Master Plan – Land Use Element, adopted by the Township Committee in 2011, the land Furia owns could be developed as “mixed-use”: a 20,000 square foot retail space with residential apartments on the top floor.  Furia came to the Committee to request a change to the ordinance regarding the use of the land from mixed-use to residential use.

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Walker explained, “When Mr. Furia purchased this property, his intent was to build a ‘Center;’ to have a large retail center on the property.  Mr. Furia spent a lot of time working with a realtor trying to determine what could be constructed on the site, and given the fact that the retail building would be way in the back, it lent itself to having an ‘anchor.’ He went on to try to find an anchor but there was nobody interested, given the traffic flow on Route 202.  We came up with this idea to have townhomes constructed behind the retail area [on Route 202].  They make a nice transition from apartments to townhomes to single family homes in the rear.  From an intensity standpoint, this is taking a step back.  The zoning is for 20,000 square feet of retail and restaurant space with 16 apartments above.  That use would involve 132 parking spaces and be a much more intensive development.  This has 20 townhome units, a lot of green space, a nice buffer, and there are 40 parking spaces required, with no truck traffic.  It’s less intense than what could be built.”

Walker went on to explain that while nine acres comprise Furia’s property, only about three can be built on because of wetlands in the back of the property.  Walker called the six acres, which will be preserved in their current state as part of the proposal, “a natural buffer.”

Schepis explained that the units would be approximately 2,000 to 2,500 square feet each, with two or three bedrooms, and would be “fee simple,” meaning, for sale and not for rent.  He called the units “high end,” and stated that they would sell for approximately $750,000 and would be assessed for taxes of approximately $13,000 each.

The usual process for a developer who wishes to build on land in a way that has not been zoned is to bring his or her application before the Zoning Board of Adjustment.  As explanation, Schepis stated, “We believe, and the client wants to pursue this, as it would be a better component to the Towaco Center.  It would serve the goal of bringing in the residential foot traffic to support the commercial [businesses] so you can create your town center which was envisioned in the Master Plan, but give it a softer touch than what would otherwise be permitted under the zoning ordinance. It would probably be a more compatible use for the residents in the rear and the surrounding environments than commercial use with more traffic.  Our request is that you would refer this to the Planning Board and let us come back with whatever the Planning Board suggests.”

In order to further clarify the request before the Committee, Mayor Scott Gallopo stated, “I want to make sure something is clear if it it’s not.  The property is currently zoned for mixed-use.  It’s zoned for retail with apartments above.  Mr. Schepis is here looking for an ordinance change to a different use, which would be townhouses.  This isn’t a discussion on whether or not that property should be developed.  It already has zoning rules and can be developed.  We already have mixed-use developments in Towaco and Rails is one of them.  I want to make sure everybody’s on the same page.  The decision is whether or not to move forward with a process to change the use or a zoning ordinance to allow for townhouse development as opposed to what it’s currently zoned for, which is mixed-use.”

Committee members were then able to ask questions of Schepis and Walker, representing Furia.  Committee Member Deb Nielson inquired about the traffic increase in the area. She commented that two parking spaces per unit would be insufficient.  She was further concerned with the impact on the school system, particularly Cedar Hill Elementary School, which serves the Towaco area.  She asked if Furia would consider making the units “age restricted,” that is, available for purchase only to adults aged 55 and older, but Schepis told her there was no market for that demographic.  Nielson refuted the comment, stating the example of the Briar Hill development on Vreeland Avenue, “which had no problems selling.”  She asked about the buffer areas on the property set aside to protect the wetlands, and Walker stated that on the eastern border there would be more than 200 feet and to the north there would be 275 feet.  He further stated that deed restrictions on the property would ensure that the wetlands and buffer would never be disturbed.

At that point, the floor was opened to the public.  Gallopo explained that the questions and comments should all be made, and at the conclusion of public comments, he would pose the questions to Schepis and Walker.

Towaco resident Michele Caron stated her concerns:  “We’re not crazy about it.  We have lived in the area for 27 years and Fred Eckhardt told me they could never build on these wetlands.  There are endangered species vetted by the Department of Environmental Protection:  red shouldered hawks and blue spotted salamanders are on the property. We’re worried because our water well is right on the edge of the property line – what will happen to it?  The traffic – coming underneath the trestle and going straight out is a mess now and building up to a disaster. Anybody who has been through that area at dinnertime, it can take a half hour to get from Firehouse Road to Waughaw Road.  We don’t like the size of it; we’d like it to be scaled way down. If it was just a strip in the front that would be perfectly fine, and that’s what it’s zoned for now.  Protect our wetlands and our woods. It’s a very country-like area.  I invite you all for tea.  Please come and knock on our doors and talk to us if you want to work with us.  We’re all here tonight and we’d be more than happy to have you at our houses to work this out.”

Towaco resident Richard Moore stated his concerns about the effect of the development on the Township’s aquifer, which is its principal source of water for both residents with wells and who utilize the Township’s water system.

Conklin recused himself from the proceedings because his residence is near the property in question.  Speaking as a resident, he stated, “If you took a poll in Montville, I don’t think ‘mixed-use’ is very popular. An area like this – Towaco – once the precedent is set, there’s nothing to say it won’t happen in another area of town.  We’ve got 20 units, each family has about one point two kids, and in Montville Township uses about $13,000/year to educate a child, you come up with the math and see the risk versus the reward of this.”

Gallopo then reminded the assembly that the ordinance posed before the Committee was not a “yes or no development,” but of the type of development.

Towaco resident Dan Pagano stated, “Everything in the proposal assumes it’s a good plan, and that hasn’t been answered yet.  You can say that it’s still in doubt that the Towaco Crossing development and this plan [are] going to be successful.”

Quoting the Master Plan of 2011, Pagano continued, “‘The Master Plan […] represents the bold endeavor to redevelop the existing Towaco Village area.’ That’s a quote from the architect who advised the Master Plan.  I don’t remember anyone knocking on my door, asking for my vote and saying that ‘I’m looking for a bold endeavor to redevelop Towaco.’  I don’t think anyone moved here to have a ‘bold redevelopment of Towaco.’  I don’t think a single realtor or neighbor ever requested a ‘bold redevelopment of Towaco.’  It is part of this equation.  You can’t just say that that project is going to be developed.  It still has to go before the Board before it’s developed.  Plans fail and the planners continue to plan.  Before you consider a new ordinance, of getting ‘bolder’ with the redevelopment of Towaco, which is what you’re doing, no matter how they sell it, this is even more bold than what was in the original plan.  It’s not smart growth.”

Towaco resident Joan Conway stated her concerns about the aquifer and stated, “We’ve lived in Towaco for 30 years and enjoyed the environment that has existed in the township.  I’m really sorry to see it change so rapidly.  This is such a large development.”

Since the public had no further questions or comments, Gallopo proceeded to ask Schepis and Walker the questions the audience members had posed.

Regarding endangered species, Walker stated that he had a Letter of Interpretation from the Department of Environmental Protection, which determines what the transition area should be and the location of the actual wetlands.  “They determine whether or not the species are nesting within the area, and they’re very conservative when they do this, and they would list any endangered species that would impact the value of the wetlands on the Letter of Interpretation, which they did not.”

Regarding effect on aquifer, Walker stated that determining the effect on the aquifer is a step in the planning process.  “But the original plan would result in a lot more impervious cover,” stated Walker. “The project is located in the ‘Critical Water resource prime aquifer area’ and so there’s less impervious cover allowed.  If you compare this plan to the plan that’s allowed, it would be 18% cover whereas 40% is allowed in the Prime Aquifer area.  One of the goals in developing property in the Prime Aquifer area is to make sure the water quality is good and that the water is being infiltrated back into the ground to support the aquifer.  That’s something that would be part of our development plans and it’s a much easier goal to accomplish with townhomes rather than a more intense retail center with a large parking lot.”

Nielson then stated, “This proposal would negate Ms. Caron’s concerns about noise and dumpsters in the northern portion of a commercial property development.  I don’t know if 20 townhouses is an appropriate number but that is not part of our decision tonight.  It’s whether we are willing to consider a change in the ordinance to permit townhouses in lieu of commercial [buildings] with rental apartments above. 

“They have asked for 20 townhouses.  We are not bound by that request. 

“The demands on the schools, the traffic information, and the environmental concerns should be factored into any final decision.  Personally I would rather see residential than retail or rental apartments.

“I would be in favor of moving this forward for additional Planning [Board] review.  I think the net result may be a win-win situation.  Some of the parameters of the project need to be changed to meet my personal approval, such as the ten-foot side yard and the two parking spots per unit.  But I’m willing to work with the community and this applicant to come to a win-win solution,” concluded Nielson.

Sandham stated, “There are people here from the Planning Board and the Zoning Board, and I appreciate them coming out.

“This is not the greatest of plans, but it’s not the worst of plans either.

“If you had retail space with rentals above, you’d have more transient residents.  That would be a much worse answer than what this is.

“This would have less impact on the aquifer than other developments.

“Mrs. Caron didn’t say this was a bad project, she said she’s not crazy about this.

“This is not about the project, it’s about the due process.  When someone owns a piece of land, they have the right to bring their projects to the Zoning Board or the Planning Board which are made up of your neighbors. Let’s get those comments at the Planning Board, work with the developer, maybe there’s some tweaks and changes that can be made that would make it more accommodating to the area and we’d get something that would work better.

“I believe in allowing it to go before the Planning Board where everyone can have input.  Those Boards are in place for a reason,” concluded Sandham.

Committee Member Don Kostka stated, “You’re looking at mixed-use and I doubt the residents want that, or high density condos.  If we move forward on this, today it’s Towaco, tomorrow it’s Pine Brook.  Our town is fundamentally changing, and it’s because of the Master Plan.  This is what happens when mixed-use is in close proximity to residential areas.  I look at this as, all things considered, this is better than mixed-use.  If we say yes to this, what are we opening up the rest of the town for?  Short-term if I vote yes, we’re better off with it.  But long-term, what are we doing to the town.”

When Sandham stated, “Every applicant to the Planning Board stands on its own,” Kostka replied, “That’s how you set yourself up for lawsuits.  Once you pass it, there’s an attorney saying you did it here, and now you have to defend yourself. And so the town will spend needless money on lawsuits to defend itself.”

Gallopo then stated his opinion:  “The Master Plan was adopted in 2011.  The ink is not yet dry on this document.  It was worked on for many years.  It’s a living document to be used for the development of the Township.  It laid out all of our Land Use laws.  I see projects being completed and started, like Rails, Shops on Main, and the corner of Changebridge and 202.  Things are beginning to change rapidly not because the economy is picking up.  Some of these projects are [now] more viable, economically, which is why they’re starting production.  There has not been enough time since the Master Plan was adopted for me to feel like we can make a change in use ordinance simply because I need you to take a pause and see how the Master Plan is panning out.  I don’t think enough time has passed.

“If we don’t pass this as an ordinance so it can go to the Planning Board, it can go to the Zoning Board of Adjustment -- where it should go, for a Use Variance.  That’s where it should go.  It is not time for people to come to the Township Committee for a Permitted Use change in a land use ordinance that was just adopted several years ago.

“The current permitted use may not be better than what they’re proposing.

“We’re not here to decide if the land should be developed.  We’re deciding what can be developed.

“’Should we change the ordinance to allow for townhouses.’  That’s our role here.  It’s important everybody understands the process.  There’s been a lot of misinformation in the community in the past two weeks.

“Now’s not the time to change the Master Plan.  If we say no tonight, the remedy can be with the Zoning Board of Adjustment.  It’s not the end of the line.

“If we say ‘yes,’ it goes to the Planning Board, the Planning Board has a hearing, and it gets vetted there.  The report comes to us, we take it under advisement, and the process continues.  Even if the Planning Board says ‘here’s a great plan,’ it does not mean we have to make the change,” concluded Gallopo.

Sandham disagreed with Gallopo, stating, “We’re trading off five chances for input if it goes directly to the Planning Board for one if it goes to the Zoning Board of Adjustment.  We’re halfway through the life of the Master Plan already.  The ink is dry.”

Gallopo replied, “In the first few years of the Master Plan, there wasn’t a lot of development.  Now for the last 18 months there’s been a lot of activity.”

Nielson stated her concern with the timing, stating, “If it goes to the Planning Board, there are no time constraints like there are if it goes to the Zoning Board of Adjustment.  If we send it to the Planning Board, the developer and the community could come to a happy agreement and it could look different from this.  If they presented a conforming plan, it could not be massaged.”

Gallopo argued that it could take a year but it could take much a much shorter time.

The Committee then voted, minus Conklin.  Nielson and Sandham voted yes to forward the proposal directly to the Planning Board and therefore change the use of the land in question.  Kostka and Gallopo voted no.

A tie is considered a “non action,” and is the equivalent of a “no.”  Therefore, the proposed development has to be heard in front of the Zoning Board of Adjustment in order to proceed.

Towards the end of the meeting, Towaco Civic Association President Kim Bott addressed the body and requested that the land be purchased for Open Space preservation.

In a later email to TAP, Furia stated that he is not sure of his next move and is going to “think things through.”

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