After months of zoning board meetings and discussions on a controversial Bloomfield Avenue development, Verona residents were disappointed once again Thursday night when the board adjourned without inching closer to a decision.
The board heard testimony for more than three hours before deciding to continue the application at the March 14 meeting.
Thursday night's meeting was attended by 25 residents, while close to 100 people attended to give testimony just two nights prior.
Residents who had expected the board to reach a decision by the end of the meeting were visibly annoyed at the adjournment.
“If it were about community, it would have been over a long time ago,” said resident Terry Moore. “It's all just legalese.”
Residents described themselves as frustrated, tired and exasperated when the meeting was adjourned for another month.
“They promise closure every time,” said one resident.
One resident who did not wish to be named felt that the board had questioned the opposition much more harshly than the applicant.
“The burden of proof is always on the applicant,” board attorney Robert Gaccione assured the residents.
Alan Trembulak, the attorney representing the developer said he hopes to conclude at the March 14 meeting and get to a point where the board can make a decision.
“We are disappointed,” said opposing resident Kathy Sternas, who is represented by Attorney John Dusinberre. “We were hoping they would vote and not go through this. We hope it's resolved soon.”
Verona residents have been attending meetings since June to show their opposition to a 3½-story structure designed to house retail shops and apartments along Bloomfield Avenue. The property, located at 176 and 200 Bloomfield Ave., was purchased by developer DMH2 LLC, who is seeking several variances from the zoning board for mixed-use and retaining wall height along with several others.
Residents and neighbors opposed to the project feel the developer has overlooked several additional variances needed for the proposed property.
Community Planning Consultant and licensed planner Peter Steck of Maplewood testified as an expert witness for the residents Thursday and was questioned by Dusinberre.
The developer plans extensive rock blasting a short distance from neighboring homes, which has many residents concerned about their foundations.
“The ordinances have the effect of encouraging a developer to work with the land,” said Steck. “The application has a different theme and works against the land by trying to pretend the land is flat and cut a shelf out of it and work with what is left.”
Steck testified the application does not meet the required parking limit which is based on “gross floor area” by understating the amount of square footage in the retail space.
“That retail space inevitably includes the corridor behind it,” he said. “You can't have a retail space with only one means in and out of it, the front door, you have to have a second means of exit for fire purposes. That relies on the corridor.”
Steck said with the corridor the retail space is at least 9,2021 square feet and not 7,000 square feet. This means that the parking requirement is brought to 75 spaces, he said. The application calls for 63 spaces and is 12 spaces short, he added.
Steck and Township Planner Jason Kasler then moved on to the trees left in the 15-foot buffer zone between the property and adjacent homes.
The developer recently submitted a new plan, which showed they would try to save several of the existing trees, something Steck says is unrealistic because of the retaining wall that would sever the root system.
“There is insufficient evidence on record to say you can save those trees,” said Steck. “You are disturbing the root structure of these trees, compromising their growth more realistically compromising their root structure.”
This could weaken their roots causing them to fall north onto one of the neighboring properties, he said.
Kasler argued despite trees existing on the current property, there is no buffer zone until the application is approved and the applicant therefore does not need to keep the buffer zone in its naturally wooded state.
“Once they construct the building and there is need for a buffer zone, then that would kick in,” said Kasler. “Once it is wooded then you have to keep it natural.”
“The word natural is in your buffer requirement,” said Steck. “To suggest that that word is meaningless is against the common sense meaning of the ordinance.”
Even Board Chairman John Denton commented that it seems “odd” to cut everything down and then do the construction and then put in trees.
Residents laughed when Kasler said “because when you are planning and have to look into the future 50 years from now when this landscaped buffer area is fully grown in will be in a natural state.”
“We'll be dead by then!” shouted one resident in the crowd.
When questioned by Dusinberre whether he considered the area wooded, Kasler said the area is “heavily treed.”
Board member Michael Zichelli argued the landscaping would be more attractive than keeping the current trees but Steck argued the landscaping was on top of a 26-foot retaining wall, in between two fences and would never thrive or be able to be maintained.
Trembulak disputed some of Steck's arguments and ultimately requested additional time to “digest” the info presented.
The board will continue the hearing at 7:30 p.m. on March 14.