BERNARDS TOWNSHIP BOARD OF ADJUSTMENT
Office slump cited for manufacturing quest in Bernards Township
- By W. JACOB PERRY Staff Writer, Aug 13, 2023 Updated 4 hrs ago
Opposition has arisen to a proposal to raze a large office building at 150 Allen Road in Bernards Township and replace it with two buildings for light manufacturing. With the proposal now before the Board of Adjustment, opponents have put out signs like this one on Mountain Road.
BERNARDS TWP. – A controversial proposal to have light manufacturing in place of an Allen Road office is needed because office space has become difficult to fill, the Board of Adjustment was told on Wednesday, Aug. 9.
Consolidation in the telecommunications and pharmaceutical industries, along with the pandemic-driven trend to work from home, has caused area office vacancy rates to reach 30 percent, said Richard Travaglini, vice president and director of development for Signature Acquisitions, LLC, of Cranford, which is seeking the proposal.
The Allen Road building was fully occupied when Signature purchased it in February 2018, Travaglini noted. But it is now 99 percent vacant, with 10 percent of tenants recently being relocated to other Signature properties to clear out what’s left, he said.
The cost of upgrading the 1980s-era building would be $5 million, he said, and even if it were upgraded, “with a shrinking demand, we’d still be in a dogfight for every deal.”
Meanwhile, the demand for industrial space “is still collectively very high” in the form of pharmaceutical labs, electronics manufacturing and research and development, with the vacancy rate for industrial uses only 4 percent, Travaglini said.
He said he would expect the project to bring in 300 to 350 jobs.
“At the end of the day,” he added, “I’m fully prepared to address … those limitations you might suggest in order to have a workable project that works for all of us.”
After three-and-a-half hours, the hearing – the third on the proposal since May 3 – was carried to 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 14, at town hall on Collyer Lane.
Signature is seeking site plan approval and variances to remove a three-story, 174,546-square-foot office building at 150 Allen Road and construct new two buildings of 127,977 and 130,551 square feet, a total of 258,528 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. The applicant maintains that it is not seeking a warehouse.
But residents in surrounding neighborhoods have mobilized in opposition to the proposal, citing a plan to include up to 24 loading docks for trucks.
A key issue is whether trucks from the site would be more likely to take a route using 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.
The applicant has asserted that trucks exiting the site would be prohibited from turning left onto Allen Road toward The Hills, but the issue hasn’t gone away.
The Aug. 9 hearing drew about 75 people, down from a crowd of about 130 at the initial hearing.
Opposition remained, however, as a citizens group, Protect Somerset Hills, passed out fliers against the proposal. It notes that the group can be followed online at https://www.protectsomersethills.org/.
Also on hand were three opposition attorneys, each representing a different client or group of clients.
Project engineer Robert Moschello, who testified on May 3, was cross-examined at a second hearing on May 11 for nearly two-and-a-half hours by two of the opposition attorneys.
The attorneys were Donald Berlin, a resident of Fellowship Village who was representing fellow residents in the 257-unit continuing care retirement community on Allen Road; and Jennifer Phillips Smith, a Newark-based lawyer representing Fellowship Village, Inc.
At the Aug. 9 hearing, Moschello was cross-examined by Robert F. Simon, a Warren Township-based lawyer representing Jeffrey McBride of Alder Lane, William T. Knox IV of Mountain Road, Ellen Pinson of Allen Road, Sky Farm, Inc., of Allen Road, and Couch Braunsdorf Insurance Group at the corner of Martinsville and Allen roads.
Under questioning from Simon, Moschello said the project’s traffic engineer was working on a barrier to prohibit trucks but not cars and delivery vans from making left turn exits onto Allen Road westbound.
Moschello acknowledged that a rear driveway links the 150 Allen Road parking lot with the parking lots of office buildings at 140, 110 and 106 Allen Road. When Simon asked if trucks could use those other lots to turn left onto Allen Road, he was told it was a question for the applicant’s traffic consultant.
Simon said he would also seek to clarify if there was anything to prevent incoming trucks from arriving via I-287 and Schley Mountain/Allen Road.
With respect to the proposed loading docks, Moschello acknowledged that a township zoning ordinance contemplates a 230,000-square-foot building having only six loading docks and not 24, and only four when the office component is excluded.
Moschello also said parking would be reduced from 855 spaces to 328 versus a requirement for 639; parking lot lights would go off at 11 p.m. while three security lights would remain on; 417 of 548 trees within the development footprint would be removed; and adjacent utility easements prohibit plantings.
Board member Jaime Herrera said that while turning off the lights at 11 p.m. infers that no one would be working after that time, some buildings for manufacturing can operate on a 24/7 basis.
She asked if truck activity between 11 p.m. and dawn would be restricted.
Moschello replied that a tenant might not want a 24/7 operation.
Travaglini then testified and sought to clarify aspects of the proposal.
He noted that he is a longtime Bedminster Township resident and knows the area well.
The plans are for the proposed space to consist of 50 percent manufacturing, 30 percent shipping and receiving, and 20 percent office use, he said.
With respect to a 24/7 operation, Travaglini said prospective tenants have discussed two shifts and occasionally a third to meet deadlines. Two shifts would most likely operate from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. and 4 p.m. to midnight, or from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 2 to 10 p.m., he said.
He played down the chance of an overnight shift, saying he has been informed that shipping and receiving typically occurs in the daytime.
With respect to proposing 24 loading docks, Travaglini said the “optimum” ratio is one per 3,000 square feet, with one per 4,000 to 5,000 square feet being “less marketable,” and one per 6,000 square feet becoming “undesirable.”
While the proposal seeks to provide up to 12 docks per building, “it could be half that,” he said.
With respect to a request for a variance for excessive building height, he said extra height allows for a more efficient storage space.
Travaglini said that after the office market began to decline, Signature approached township officials about a conversion to multi-family housing but was informed that the township had met its affordable housing obligation.
“We would have been thrilled to do multi-family development there,” he said. “That probably would have been the most profitable.”
Herrera asked how the manufacturing proposal would benefit the community.
Travaglini replied that it would enhance township ratables and boost the nearby retail market.
Looking ahead to the next hearing, Travaglini will take questions from the public and will likely be cross-examined by the opposition attorneys.
The applicant plans to present three additional witnesses – the project architect, a traffic consultant and a professional planner. They, too, will take questions from the public and face cross-examination.
In addition to site plan approval, variances are sought for a floor area ratio (FAR) of 21 percent versus the E-2 limit of 15 percent; building heights of 52.5 feet and 50.6 feet versus the 48-foot limit; providing 328 parking spaces as opposed to a minimum requirement for 639; excessive retaining wall heights; 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.