BRIDGEWATER, NJ - After months of deliberation and several meetings, the Bridgewater Planning Board has approved the application for a Goddard School and hotel off Route 22 and Morgan Lane adjacent to the Houlihan's Restaurant.
The property at 1228-1298 Route 22 East will now become the home of a 121-room Choice Hotel, a chain that includes the brands Clarion, Comfort Inn, Quality Inn and Sleep Inn. It will also see the construction of a new Goddard School, an early childhood development and daycare center that already has several other locations operating throughout the state.
The application had previously been discussed at planning board meetings in both June and July. Another meeting was held on Aug. 13 to shore things up, before the case was ultimately approved by a 7-0 vote at the board's Aug. 26 meeting.
Applicant attorney Henry L. Kent-Smith, of the firm Fox Rothschild, LLP, called three witnesses focusing on traffic patterns about the site, and for the hotel itself, along with additional equipment for the school. Kent-Smith said the applicant had agreed to make modifications following the earlier August meeting.
Adequate “do not enter” signage has been added to the application for the right turn directly off Route 22 East, and landscaping has also been adjusted, said site plan engineer Robert Moschello. He also said bollards have been added for protection to the back and west side areas of the school site, and will now encompass the entire building as a barrier.
Traffic control signs will also be installed onsite.
Traffic engineer Gary Dean said a submission has been made to the Department of Transportation to close some of the existing driveways fronting Route 22. The easterly driveway is considered to be the best of the three, and Dean also said that the middle driveway can be maintained as it is.
The submission was filed with the DOT about a week ago, and Dean added that Bridgewater Township Planner Scarlett Doyle has also been notified of the submission.
“I think it’s an improvement,” said Dean. “It’s considered a minor application.”
He said he expects to hear back from the DOT within 90 days, and perhaps as soon as 45 days.
At the request of planning board chair Tricia Casamento, Moschello ticked off a list of variances that had been requested in the application. They included: 60.8 percent lot coverage; a minimum building setback of 115 feet for The Goddard School; a 112.8-foot setback for Houlihan’s, which was an existing non-conforming condition; a parking setback of 50 feet off Route 22 for Houlihan’s, also an existing non-conforming condition; a 96.3-foot front setback for the school on Morgan Lane; a 120-foot side yard setback; parking set 81.6 feet from Route 22 for the school and Morgan Lane; a minimum buffer zone of 120 feet; a 51-foot rear yard setback for the Choice hotel; a 51-foot off-street parking buffer; a 135-foot side yard setback for the hotel from the property line to the dumpster; a 3.5-foot fence atop the school building; and three planting waivers regarding the installation of 25 trees and 271 shrubs on the property in two proposed rows, the waiver for the rows being a partial waiver request.
Casamento asked Dean about the distance between two of the driveways on Route 22, and inquired if it is a similar distance as exists between other driveways on the eastbound highway.
Dean said the DOT has liberal criteria regarding state highways, and that driveways can be 25 feet apart in an area where motorists travel 50 to 60 mph.
The ones on the site are about 250 feet apart, and also sit at least 150 feet away from Morgan Lane.
“In my opinion, the spacing is appropriate,” said Dean, who likened the distance to the length of a football field.
He also said in response to a board query that there will be an 8-foot-high solid vinyl fence installed in the rear parking lot behind the school. Illumination levels on the site have also been adjusted, and there will be no exterior audio speakers installed.
Councilman Howard Norgalis asked about the curbing arrangement on the site, so that motorists won’t make a right-hand turn onto Morgan Lane.
Dean said there are some issues that would require emergency access to the site, and that motorists will be encouraged to turn to the left to “maintain the status quo.” The entrance to the school will be off Route 22, with no changes made to Morgan Lane.
Dean also mentioned prior board approval for similar businesses on the property, but Norgalis countered that approval had been given 20 years ago and by a different planning board. Norgalis said he also wants the fire marshal to confer matters, and changes, to force traffic to go to the left.
Norgalis also asked about restrictive curbing, for fire trucks entering the site, and Moschello replied that a mountable curb is already in place, which was reviewed by the fire official with no further comment.
“The (firefighters) will drive over that island to get in,” said Moschello.
Board attorney Thomas Collins asked about the size of the traffic lanes, and Moschello responded that they are 12 to 13 feet wide, with a total width of 30 feet, including the aforementioned island. Moschello said it opens up more at the curb line, to encourage the left-hand turn.
“From a car perspective, it’s adequate,” he said. “You turn left and go down Morgan.”
Collins asked if the area could be striped, and Moschello said it could. The striping would be for the Morgan Lane entrance, to demarcate no left-hand turn into the site.
Moschello also said he could work with the town engineer and the fire official to constrict the lanes more. Board member Evan Lerner said motorists could use Morgan Lane to access Route 28, and asked why they couldn’t utilize Finderne Avenue instead, which Dean said they regionally could.
Stanford Drive resident Robert Smith said drivers on Morgan Lane don’t necessarily pay attention to signage. He added that Morgan Lane is too narrow to handle traffic, especially when vehicles are parked on it, and that fire trucks and other emergency vehicles couldn’t get through when a recent chemical spill occurred.
“We were paralyzed,” said Smith.
He added that the road was in “bad need” of repair, and that traffic cutting over from Route 22 make that area more like the Daytona 500.
He also said that police are not enforcing the “no left hand turn” stricture, and suggested perhaps using barriers, as he believes some patrons will still try to make a left-hand turn from Morgan Lane to get into the future school lot.
A sign is currently posted on Morgan Lane heading toward Route 22 that indicates left hand turns are not allowed into the Houlihan’s lot.
Lerner said that he sympathizes with Smith, although the issues on Morgan Lane predate the application, and he believes the fix is enforcement.
Smith also asked Dean when he had physically performed traffic counts in the area. Dean said he had done so in the past nine months, and that he had also measured Morgan Lane.
Kent-Smith interjected that Morgan Lane is a municipal road that is out of the applicant’s hands.
“We’re doing the best we can,” said Kent-Smith, who suggested Smith go before the township council with his concerns, including parking.
Stanford Drive resident Bill Vreeland said he is concerned about the number of variances and waivers that had been requested, nearly 20 in all.
“It’s a lot to ask, in my opinion,” he said. “Putting small kids near alcohol (at Houlihan’s), to me, it’s a safety concern.”
Kent-Smith replied that a hotel had previously been approved in that area, and that the remaining areas were the function of consolidating lots. He also said that he would send his own children to the new Goddard School “in a heartbeat,” while Vreeland said that the Kinder Castle near Somerville is a much better set-up.
Kent-Smith also said that some things Vreeland was questioning had been gone over previously, a number by community planning consultant Michael Tobia at the previous meeting.
Vreeland finished by saying that the application will add to the already-heavy traffic on Route 22, even after rush hour. Dean countered the school will be closed at night, while Houlihan’s is already in place, and that most hotel guests will be in the building at night.
Mayor Dan Hayes spoke about the variance that another Bridgewater resident had brought up regarding the main sign for the Goddard School, about an eight-foot setback for the sign instead of the required 25 feet. He was told by Moschello that the sign for Houlihan’s is set back 35 feet, and that the school sign will be set among shrubs near the new driveway, so that it will be visible from Route 22.
Dean said it is a “striking balance” in aesthetics. The school’s sign will be small, about 25 square feet in all, and will stand about 3.4 feet high.
It will also be mounted 2.6 feet off the ground, with the street number to be placed above the school logo.
“If the setback was important, we would want to revisit the sign,” Dean said.
Board member Urvin Pandya asked if motorists will simply see the school building first, if the sign is to be as small as projected. Dean said there are a lot of trees being planted across the frontage, trees that will only continue to grow.
“The information motorists need should be in their field of vision,” he said.
Architect Nehal Jhaveri took the stand as the final witness of the night, to discuss changes made to the Choice hotel to be built on the site. He said he is thankful to the board for bringing about its concerns, and believes that it has come to a good conclusion.
“It’s a much warmer building than before,” he said.
He said there have been a change in the facade on all sides of the building, to give it more of a multi-family residential look as opposed to a commercial one, with articulation of materials and parapet heights. He added that the changes had been difficult for Choice hotels to accept, in regard to its brand, but that the main tower has been kept, and the design is a “good marriage” of traditional and contemporary styles, juxtaposed.
The previous design had featured a white and gray facade, while the revised model is now brown and gray.
“It’s a warmer impression,” Jhaveri said.
Hayes said he appreciates the efforts of the brand.
“This is far superior to the initial one,” he said.
Hayes also asked if nearby residents will be able to see the hotel’s HVAC system on its roof. Jhaveri said they will not, as it will be in the center of the building with the tower in front, although the system could be physically screened if need be.
Vreeland asked if the outer stone covering for the hotel could be painted, and was told no. He also asked how thick it is, for sound absorption purposes.
Jhaveri responded that, by code, the wall system itself is absorbent, and features insulation two inches thick by six inches thick.
Smith asked the applicants to come up with something that fit the site. Kent-Smith said the project has been downsized from an approved 136 guest rooms to 121 guest rooms.
Casamento said a lot of changes have been made for the good of the application, including revised site lighting, more coverage provided by trees and bollards extended all the way around the school.
The board approved the application with conditions, along with the execution of a developer’s agreement with the township.