East Brunswick Planning Board approves development plan, despite residents’ dismay

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EAST BRUNSWICK–After spending numerous hours listening to testimony from experts and opinions from residents, the East Brunswick Planning Board approved HD Summerhill LLC’s proposed development plan with a 6-3 vote.

HD Summerhill will construct four three-story residential buildings; a clubhouse with a gathering room, a possible coffee bar and an exercise facility; a playground; a CVS pharmacy; a Chase Bank; and parking, lighting and landscaping improvements at 377 Summerhill Road, East Brunswick, near the Spotswood border, according to attorney David Himelman, who represents the applicant.

Previously, the developer was proposing five three-story residential buildings but had revised its proposed plan, reducing the total number of units from 120 to 96, according to Himelman.

More than 75 residents attended the meeting where Himelman delivered a closing statement on behalf of the applicant on April 24 at Memorial Middle School before receiving preliminary and final site plan approval.

“The proposed project is a planned unit residential development, which is permitted in the Town Green (TG) zone. Pursuant to your ordinance, ‘a planned unit residential development in the TG zone shall include 20 percent affordable units as defined in the township housing compliance plan,'” Himelman said.

HD Summerhill managing member Nicholas Minoia said the property is 10.34 acres and contains an approximately 40,000-square-foot office building, which he said is functionally obsolete.

Board members Charles Heppel, Jeanette Tugya, Steve Philips, Laurence Bravman, Chairman Shawn Taylor and Muhammad Hashmi voted “yes.” Board Members Laurence Reiss, Joseph Criscuolo and Michael Spadafino voted “no.”

“I’ve chaired this board for about 20 years and this is the first time I really feel boxed in, and shame on the court for putting us in this situation and shame on that judge for forcing members of the Township of East Brunswick to go against what they feel is in the best interest of their town,” Taylor said. “Trust me this application has weighed heavy on me. I’ve had many sleepless nights about this. It’s without a doubt the worst ‘yes’ vote that I’m ever going to cast.”

Seeking to explain why this project is different from others, board attorney Lawrence Sachs said between 2015 and 2016 the township had to come up with an affordable housing plan and find sites where affordable housing could be built. The site where the development will be was selected, and ultimately approved by the previous Planning Board and Township Council.

“What happens after 2016? We have a new administration that comes in, Mayor Brad Cohen comes in, [a] new council and last summer with the blessing of this board we decided that we were going to change the ordinance in this zone. … We attempted to rezone this property which would have resulted in a radically different application,” Sachs said. “The developer saw fit to challenge that and filed a lawsuit in September or October of last year. We had a hearing on this and the judge essentially said you are in violation of your affordable housing settlement that reached in 2016 … and secondly your mayor is no longer allowed to participate in hearings, because the mayor did make public comments.”

Providing easier access for residents to enter Frost Woods Park, Himmelman said the plan includes 14 designated parking spaces and one electrical charging station, which will be provided along the north-access drive that connects the Chase Bank’s path and the residential buildings.

Brett Skapinetz, engineer and director of Dynamic Engineering Consultants, said 15 Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) parking spaces will also be distributed in front of all four of the residential buildings. The proposed plan will have a total of 269 parking spaces, which include garage spaces at each residential building.

On March 27 during the board’s previous meeting, Craig Peregoy, the applicant’s traffic engineer from Dynamic Traffic LLC, said that at the request of the township’s engineering experts and the board, he conducted another traffic study at the Summerhill Road and Old Stage Road intersection, the site driveways and the 7-Eleven driveway located on Old Stage Road.

“There were some questions about the traffic count data that we had utilized in our traffic study. The board had some concerns that perhaps we did not capture the peak hours in the time frames of our traffic counts. Also, Rutgers [University] was not in session and the Saturday counts were [collected] in the summertime,” Peregoy said. “I had indicated that we did updated counts in January, but the board requested that we go out and do one more round of traffic counts [and] extended the timeframes.”

Peregoy said he conducted the previous traffic counts Monday to Sunday from 7-9:30 a.m. and 4:30-6:30 p.m., and on Saturday from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. The updated traffic counts were conducted from 6:30-9:30 a.m. and from 3-8 p.m. Monday to Sunday, and from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday.

“The results of the traffic count program showed that we did pick up those peak hours in our original time periods. In the second [traffic count] the morning peak hours were from 7-8 a.m., the evening was 5:15-6:15 p.m.,” Peregoy said. “In terms of the traffic volume, again just like the January traffic counts, they were very similar in terms of movement and traffic volume compared to our initial reports. In fact, they were about 2-3% lower overall than the initial reports. … Very similar from the traffic impact standpoint, not anything drastic, very similar, but slightly different.”

To improve traffic near the proposed site, Himelman said the applicant’s engineering team has proposed roadway improvements near the site that includes two full movement driveways along Summerhill Road to provide access to the site, one driveway on Old Stage Road that will not allow drivers to make a left turn, and a two-way center left turn lane along Summerhill Road.

Himelman said the applicant’s development plan has Middlesex County Planning Board approval, which included an extensive review of the traffic impact from this project.

The applicant is seeking five C variances and signs relating to the pharmacy and the bank. HD Summerhill LLC is also seeking a variance for the pitch of the residential buildings’ roof, where the applicant is proposing a flat roof for each residential buildings, according to Himelman.

After Himelman delivered his closing statement, HD Summerhill LLC agreed to do all of the engineering and traffic improvement recommendations from the township engineering experts.

Since the lighting from the CVS’s and Chase Bank’s signs will be on 24 hours per day, Skapinetz said the applicant will agree to a night lighting plan, noting neither will be open 24 hours per day.

“I would suggest that plan be something that is accommodating to the residential development on site, as well as, the residential neighbors off-site,” Sachs said.

Taylor said he was concerned about granting the applicant a signage variance due to the applicant’s proposed signs that will be located at Chase and CVS. He said that pitched roofs for the proposed residential building would look better than flat roofs.

“I understand your point, as the applicant does, the concern obviously … would be to make sure we don’t exceed the height limitation of 35 feet plus up to 10%,” Himelman said. “I think we can develop [pitched roofs] again in conference with your professional staff and present plans as long as we keep it under the requirement that would trigger [another] use variance.”

Criscuolo, who is also the township’s business administrator, said he also felt that some of the applicant’s proposed signs for Chase and CVS were excessive and that the applicant could eliminate a few.

Criscuolo also said the applicant should give the township its written snow removal plan so the township can know where it plans to dispose of snow from the site. Himelman said the applicant will submit a written snow removal plan to the township.

On March 24 and April 17, the board listened to attorney Thomas Barlow present an objector’s case on behalf of East Brunswick residents Cathleen Decker, David Decker and Marcie Mattis.

“Following the board’s decision, we won’t be taking any further action. We’ll be paying attention, but in terms of legal action, we’re closing this chapter,” Cathleen Decker said.

Resident Shelly Newman said, “I just don’t understand you have thousands of families that are against this project – does that count for anything? I challenge you to knock on a door in either Spotswood or in East Brunswick and find one person who is in favor of this project. … I would like to know, I’m not an engineer, I’m not a traffic engineer, [but] traffic – my head is hurting just thinking about what we are going to be going through.”

Resident Arthur Goldenberg said in 2015 he had a stroke and the rescue squad was able to get to his house in 10 minutes.

“I can’t get out of the ShopRite [of Spotswood] parking lot in 10 minutes. The traffic that is coming from Main Street and the traffic that is coming off of Summerhill [Road], because they can make a right on red, you cannot get out in less than 10 to 15 minutes. I am just saying that included traffic will put lives at risk,” Goldenberg said.

Contact Vashti Harris at vharris@newspapermediagroup.com.