WEST ORANGE, NJ – After a review of the plans for the project, and lengthy questions and comments from the public and board members, the West Orange Planning Board officially approved the Gregory School bus driveway and parking lot expansion on Wednesday.

The vote was 6-3, with board members Jerry Eben, Gerald Gurland and Gary Wegner voting no.

The plan was formally presented to the board for its third review by Mike Petry of Petry Engineering. He reviewed the details of the plan, including the creation of a bus-only driveway in front of the school, expansion of the parking lot from 53 to 71 spaces, the widening of sidewalks and improvements to grading and the drainage system.

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The creation of the driveway will mean the large stately trees that currently stand in front of the school will be cut down. In their place, the plan calls for flowering dogwoods to be planted in front of the school, plus additional planting of shrubs and other plants around the school and parking lot.

While overall the topic of “safety” for the schoolchildren was a theme, discussion of the plan got tense at times with the public as well as with some board members. Board member Jerry Eben started using his question session with Petry to ask questions about every detail of the plan, telling everyone in the room, “we’re going to be here a long time.”

After numerous technical questions about the blueprints and architect comments, Chairman Ron Weston eventually asked Eben to ask pertinent questions about the plan outline, calling his line of questioning “filibustering” as they pertained to specific technical questions which could be answered later.

In his final comments later on, Eben warned “Someone’s gonna get hurt,” and lamented that “there are more solutions than the ones presented here” which were never discussed.

Another board member with strong views was Gerald Gurland, who called the plan “a disaster,” and specifically lamented the loss of the trees which had been part of the school’s landscape for decades.

Local residents and opponents of the plan targeted the lack of a traffic study and the unenforced parking rules on Lowell Avenue as the major causes for concern that needed to be addressed. Councilman Joe Krakoviak addressed the unifying safety theme, saying, “We all have the same goal, to maximize the safety of all children and parents. I’m not convinced this plan will do that.”

Krakoviak again called for a traffic study to be done. “Consider asking for a traffic study from someone who has not already decided it is not needed,” he said, making reference to Harold Maltz, a professional engineer subcontracted by Petry Engineering, who had issued a traffic evaluation for the project, but opposed doing a full traffic study.

On the topic of the study, Petry acknowledged  that, “there was not an official traffic report for this project,” but the study showed “there was a significant safety concern along Lowell (Avenue), and this would solve that.”

He also pointed out that busses currently have to pass in front of the school on Gregory Avenue twice….once going in to drop off the kids on Lowell and once more leaving. “With this plan, a bus only crosses in front of Gregory once, not twice.”

In public comments, resident Drew Sawyer asked if Maltz had ever offered to do a full traffic report. Petry replied he had not, noting that any job like this always starts with traffic observations and evaluations, and then you make recommendations based on that information.

“If this were a private school, the Board would not require a full report,” he said.

Resident Joseph Berwind suggested the 2% grade would require busses to nearly stop before turning into the driveway, which would cause traffic on Gregory and possibly open up busses to traffic accidents. Petry said currently the busses have to turn from Gregory on to Walker Road, a full 100 degree turn, and do it again when they are going back, so the grade was not an issue and the bus turns likely would be faster.

Resident Heidi Sawyer said she was concerned about safety, and believed “if you dedicate a uniformed officer on Lowell, that can change the current situation.” Petry said in his opinion the base problem of having children being let out near moving cars and busses was not safe.

There were also numerous proponents of the plan in the chamber for the meeting. One was school crossing guard Marica Clark, who said she has been working at the corner of Gregory and Walker for over ten years. She noted that traffic backups and illegally parked cars on Walker were a regularity. When asked if she thought the plan would help alleviate the traffic problem and increase security, she said, “Absolutely.”

The entire McAbee family came to support the plan, with Susan McAbee saying it takes her 20 minutes to go around the block most mornings, and with the number of students and number of busses doubled in recent years, “you need accommodations to make it safe.” Resident Michael Rintzler agreed, saying with the larger numbers of students and busses, “this makes the best of a bad situation.”

Other topics that came up in comments were how the construction would affect local residents across the street, the location of portapotties and garbage dumpsters and straightening the fire hydrant.

In the end, well after midnight, Chairman Weston noted that there were some things brought up by the comments that should be considered as addendum revisions to the plan, including making sure an eight-year-old dwarf cherry tree donated as a gift by the Class of 2010 be moved and incorporated into the grounds and better signage on Lowell Avenue to make sure parents know they cannot ‘park’ for more than two minutes in the “kiss and go” area.

But after suggesting a traffic study also be recommended to take place while the project was being done, Board Members Councilwoman Susan McCartney and Lee Klein said they felt it was unnecessary. The vote was then taken and the plan passed.

Bids for the project are due in by June 8. Petry said there was every confidence that the project, started after school ends, would be completed before Opening Day in September.

The next Planning Board meeting is scheduled for July 6.