BRIDGEWATER, NJ - Despite pleas from the about 100 residents in attendance to go back to the drawing board and try again, the Bridgewater Township Planning Board approved the Center of Excellence application as presented by a 6–1 vote Tuesday.
Councilman Howard Norgalis was the single dissenting vote against the project.
The 110-acre Center of Excellence, on Route 202/206, was formerly the Sanofi Aventis site. The council approved a redevelopment ordinance several years ago that included plans for 400 rental apartment units, of which 10 percent would be affordable housing units.
The center is also slated to include on-site amenities ranging from retail shops and restaurants to a hotel and 80,000-square-foot supermarket.
Residents focused mostly on the traffic concerns with the addition of the development, as well as the issue of benzene under the property.
Madison Avenue resident Nancy Binowski said she is very familiar with the current traffic on Route 202/206, and the difficulty of making a left onto the highway in the morning and evening rush hours.
“With traffic, the light at Brown Road will back up past Old Farm Road, and sometimes to Corporate Drive,” she said. “You have to rely on the good naturedness of people to give you a gap, wait for it and then gun it out onto the highway.”
Binowski said Old Farm Road is a poorly paved road that is riddled with potholes, and traffic weaves in and around to avoid them.
“I oppose this application because of the severe detriment it will have to our quality of life,” she said. “Consider the lives of residents in the area and vote no to the application as it currently stands.”
Binowski said that in the traffic study, Old Farm and Talamini roads were considered access roads, and indicated that 18 percent of traffic travels on those roads - but they were not studied.
“What they did say in the study was that the traffic on Old Farm Road would go from 18 cars on Saturday to 91 in one hour, traveling on this little road,” she said. “That’s just during one hour, how is that not going to impact the lives of the people who live along that road?”
Binowski said that even though the traffic study said the project is going to overall improve the traffic, she understands the applicant is not responsible for improving every intersection.
“But it seems they are only concerned for the ones in and out of the Center of Excellence property, not the numerous roads that don’t have traffic signal access to Route 202/206,” she said. “I think it is the responsibility of the planning board to consider all other roads and the impact on residents living outside these roads.”
For many residents, they were concerned that while the traffic study looked at what was going on now, it didn’t take into account what is to come.
“The applicant has not taken into account other development in the area with the mosque and the Hindu temple expansion, new traffic patterns on Route 202/206 and Route 287,” said Braemar Place resident Brian Hoffman. “My fear is that the traffic improvements in the report take care of the current traffic deficiencies, and not what is to come in the future.”
“I don’t know how close to capacity we are, but someone should know to ensure that we are not entering into something that is not sustainable,” he added.
Council president, and mayor-elect, Matthew Moench said the redevelopment project is required to improve traffic along the entire corridor, which he said he considers to go all the way to Pluckemin, and down toward the Somerville Circle.
“The testimony you heard is that we don’t have traffic stats for the morning,” he said. “There are more than a dozen intersections, and more than half haven’t been studied. We don’t know what the traffic impacts are on other roads, and how it will effect Hillside School.”
Many residents also expressed concern that residents in surrounding Bedminster and Pluckemin were not consulted regarding the project, and the amount of traffic that will back up into those towns on Route 202/206 as more cars are getting stopped at traffic lights is significant.
Resident, and former Democratic candidate for mayor, Jeffrey Brookner said he believed there was something missing in the traffic report that, legally, would ensure that the planning board could deny the application as it stood.
“You can’t disregard legitimate testimony and abide by personal opinion,” he said of the planning board’s responsibility to make a decision based on the facts presented by the witnesses. “But this does not mean you are powerless. You can make sure the plan satisfies the requirements of state law and all municipal requirements, and one requirement is not satisfied.”
According to state regulations, Brookner said, all intersections with more than 100 vehicles must be included in a traffic study. The number of cars traveling northbound on Route 202/206 with the project, according to the report he said, would increase by 126.
“The number of cars going to the next intersection would be 126, so the intersection of Old Farm Road to the left and Victoria Drive to the right would have an increase of 126 vehicles,” he said. “That should have been studied and it wasn’t.”
“On that alone, the board is required to deny the application,” he added. “If you do approve the project, be very careful and picky about the requirements you impose.”
The number of school children expected to come out of the project was also a point of contention for many residents, who said that the applicant’s prediction of 46 children from the 400 homes is unreasonable.
Heather Hill Way resident Brian Beglin said he remembers that a board of education estimate put the number of school children in a project of this size at 230.
“Someone is way off the mark, and we haven’t agreed upon a number,” he said. “One thing I am very concerned about is if we don’t have a good handle on the number of students, we can’t be sure we won’t have to make capital improvements, and we won’t be able to fit these children.”
The issue of the benzene on the property was also of major concern to residents.
Keith Savel, a licensed site remediation professional (LSRP) who had been hired by the township, said at a previous hearing that the site has been under investigation since 2011.
Savel said that 26 out of 28 areas of concern regarding the presence of benzene have been closed out, with the chemical existing in groundwater on the site along with the landfill, and having been left behind when an underground tank was removed from the property in 2000.
He added that an aggressive treatment process had been undertaken to handle the benzene remediation, including the removal of soil, plus the injection of chemicals into the groundwater, which he said helped the situation but did not completely take care of the problem. He said it had been determined it would take 26 years for the benzene on site to naturally attenuate or reduce, and that the situation will continue to be monitored.
Several residents said they are under the understanding that the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection has asked the applicant to withdraw the application until more samples are taken and more work is done toward the remediation. They said the DEP has indicated the LSRP for the applicant did not take enough samples, and that the sampling was done too close together.
In addition, residents said, the DEP has indicated that there are much higher values of benzene in the land than was reported.
“There is no safe level of benzene in the groundwater that is acceptable,” said resident John Arcoleo. “There is no way of sugarcoating the level of benzene, it has to be factored in.”
Raritan resident Emilie Stander said she is shocked the DEP wants the applicant to conduct additional testing, but is glad the DEP is worrying about the health and well being of the residents.
“The developer has several months or more of work to be completed before permits could be considered,” she said.
In his closing remarks, Kevin Coakley, attorney for the applicant, said the project first found its genesis when Sanofi moved out of the area, and then the township council directed the planning board to do a study as to whether the property is in need of redevelopment.
“That was the first building block, with the property being declared in need of redevelopment,” he said. “They adopted a redevelopment amendment to the master plan, and that controls our actions this evening.”
Coakley said they have tried to meet the redevelopment ordinance exactly, and have 40 affordable housing units and roadway improvements that include the traffic light on 4th Street.
“The plan that’s been submitted meets all the requirements of the zoning ordinance,” he said.
But for many residents, the project is just too big in scope to fit in this area of town.
“I understand you need to turn the property into a ratable,” said Mountain View Avenue resident Bill Hopf. “But my personal view is this is not an authentic downtown. To me this is a fancy strip mall. We have enough in Bridgewater.”
Resident Fran Hozeny agreed.
“Why is there a need for more retails?” she asked. “Why another hotel when they are springing up like weeds all along Route 22?”
“This can bring unwelcome change, compromises and consequences,” she added. “Please do not ignore the voices of so many residents who object to this project.”
Resident John Kulak said the public was anticipating their voices not being heard.
“We have people in tears in front of you, knowing that their property values are going to be diminished, and the quality of schools is going to go down,” he said. “The project is ill conceived and not right for Bridgewater.”
Councilman Filipe Pedroso said there has been blatant disrespect for the residents during the process of the application.
“The way the board has expeditiously handled this matter so it is decided before Jan. 1 is reprehensible,” he said. “You have to live in a complete vacuum to not know that the majority of residents don’t want the Center of Excellence, and certainly not the way it is before you in this application.”
Resident Lisa Esposito said the message from residents has been consistent through all the hearings.
“No one who lives here wants this,” she said. “There are legal reasons why we should not move forward, now it’s time to use common sense.”
With all conditions, and the addition of an escrow account of $47,000 for an LSRP to monitor the benzene issue, the planning board approved the application for the development of the Center of Excellence.