Thursday, February 16, 2023
BERNARDS TWP. – With a standing-room-only crowd looking on, legal issues raised by three opposition attorneys led the Board of Adjustment on Wednesday, Feb. 8, to delay further review of a controversial proposal to replace an Allen Road office building with two buildings for manufacturing. More than 150 people filled nearly every seat and lined the back walls of the town hall meeting room, spurred by fliers warning that the proposal could send tractor trailers through Allen Road neighborhoods. Although the board held a prior hearing on Jan. 4 with testimony from the applicant’s engineer, it later received letters from opposition attorneys who faulted the applicant’s December legal notice as defective and jeopardizing the entire review. The board therefore chose on Wednesday to hear the attorneys’ objections so it could decide whether to proceed further. At issue was a driveway for the 150 Allen Road office complex, owned by Signature Acquisitions, LLC, of Cranford. The start of the driveway uses an easement through the corner of a vacant 13- acre, residentially zoned lot to the west owned by Allen Center Farm, LLC, of New York, before leading to the 28-acre, commercially zoned office lot. The opposition attorneys maintained that when a driveway in a residential zone is used to reach a new use that is not permitted in the residential zone, it needs a variance that must be part of the application and included in the legal notice, which did not happen. They also faulted the legal notice for not being more specific about the intended use. Without an adequate legal notice, they said, the board lacked jurisdiction to continue the hearing. ‘Put This Off’ The board received the objections in writing earlier Wednesday from Robert F. Simon, a Warren Township- based attorney representing Jeffrey McBride of Alder Lane and William T. Knox IV of Mountain Road; and Jennifer Phillips Smith, a Newark-based attorney representing Fellowship Village, Inc. Fellowship runs a 257- unit continuing care retirement community located off Allen Road east of the office site. Arguments before the board were made by Simon, Phillips Smith and a third attorney, Donald Berlin of Fellowship Village, who was representing residents at the complex. Simon noted that the applicant planned to present additional testimony from the project architect, its director of leasing, a traffic consultant and a professional planner, and all could go to waste if the board is found to lack jurisdiction. He urged the board to require a new legal notice that better informs the public and settles the jurisdiction issue so it is “not wasting time, energy and resources in hearing testimony twice.” Phillips Smith expressed a similar view, saying the public should not have to come back for a second round of hearings. Berlin agreed. “Put this off tonight,” he said, drawing applause. Jeffrey Lehrer, attorney for the applicant, initially resisted calls to delay the proceedings. He disputed the need for the neighboring property to secure a use variance, saying the issue was whether use of the driveway would be “intensified” by a light manufacturing use. But after seeking a 15-minute break to consult with his client, Lehrer conceded that “there won’t be testimony tonight.” He asked the board for an “expedited” schedule in which he and the opposition attorneys would each submit written legal opinions to the board. The board would then review the opinions, also known as briefs, obtain a recommendation from Board Attorney Steven K. Warner, and decide whether to proceed with testimony or require a new legal notice with more variances. The agreed-upon schedule called for Lehrer to submit his rebuttal by Wednesday, March 1; the opposition attorneys would respond to the rebuttal by Friday, March 10; and Lehrer would respond to those responses by Monday, March 13. The board would then review Warner’s recommendation at its meeting scheduled for 7:30 p.m. Thursday, March 16, at town hall on Collyer Lane. Even if the board sides with the applicant, there would be no new testimony that night. Testimony would tentatively resume at the board meeting scheduled for 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, May 3, at town hall. Berlin, noting the size of the audience, told the board “there will be more people coming.” He suggested an alternative venue with more seating for future hearings. Board Chair Jeanmarie Genirs was non-committal. “The board knows it’s an important issue to the town,” she said. The public, which did not have a chance to speak, then exited quietly. Traffic Issues Signature is seeking site plan approval and variances to remove a three-story, 174,546-square-foot building at 150 Allen Road and construct two buildings of about 130,000 square feet each, for a total of about 260,000 square feet. More than three-quarters of each building would be for “light manufacturing,” which is a permitted use in the site’s E-2 employment zone. Light manufacturing in the zone is defined as “an activity which involves the assembly of products from previously prepared materials which does not involve the synthesis of chemicals or the processing of raw materials.” A traffic study performed for Signature maintains that total traffic for the manufacturing use would be less than it was for the office use. The number of on-site parking spaces would be reduced from 855 now to 328. The reduced total would include 24 trailer loading spaces, or 12 for each building. The likely increase in truck traffic led the board to vote in December to hire its own traffic consultant. Among the variances sought by Signature are for a floor area ratio (FAR) of 21 percent versus the E-2 limit of 15 percent; building heights of 52.5 feet and 51.6 feet versus the 48-foot limit; providing 328 parking spaces as opposed to a minimum requirement for 639; and disturbance of steep slopes. Several waivers are sought, including one for tree replacement. With 417 trees to be removed, 176 would be replaced versus a requirement for 649. Within days of the initial Jan. 4 meeting, residents with concerns about truck traffic began mobilizing. A key issue is whether trucks from the site would be more likely to take a route consisting of the east end of Allen Road, Martinsville Road and Interstate Route 78 or – as some residents fear – the west end of Allen Road through The Hills housing development, Schley Mountain Road and I-287. A flier distributed last month had a heading, “Manufacturing Facility Proposed on Allen Road,” accompanied by photos of a tractor trailer and a second truck spouting black smoke while driving through a neighborhood. It said residents did not yet know who the tenants would be, and “what kind of noise, pollution and environmental issues they will create.” Another flier, distributed at Wednesday’s meeting, said a group, under the name Protect Somerset Hills, was seeking donations “under the fiscal sponsorship” of the non-profit NJ Highlands Coalition. Lehrer took note of the flier, telling the board that it “re-brands the application as something it is not.” He said the upcoming testimony will show the claims are “either false or at best, misleading.” He stressed that the proposal was not designed to accommodate warehousing. He also said there would be no left turns out of the site onto Allen Road westbound toward The Hills.