Child daycare is a wonderful thing.
Just not on Turtle Road.
That was Wednesday’s verdict by the Morristown board of adjustment, which voted 6-1 to deny Rainbow Academy permission to build a 10,765-square-foot daycare center in a residential zone.
The decision capped 16 hours of testimony over four meetings stretching back to last fall. It drew enthusiastic applause from Morristown and Morris Township neighbors who came out en masse to oppose the project. Nineteen of them finally got their chance to testify at Wednesday’s marathon four-hour session.
“My faith in the system is restored. It felt like what we did really made a difference. I didn’t have that optimism when we started,” said an elated Abby Moller, adding that she met many neighbors for the first time at these zoning board meetings.
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A majority of the board agreed with residents and their lawyer, Harvey Gilbert, who contended the daycare center would exacerbate traffic problems on Turtle Road and at the Turtle/Madison Avenue/Franklin Street intersection.
This would hurt the neighborhood, the board concluded, at a time when Morristown’s pending master plan identifies preservation of neighborhoods as a central goal.
“If we approve this the way it’s put forth, there will be a never-ending stream of complaints,” board member Larry Cohen said prior to voting against the project. While he “loves the concept” –two of his grandchildren benefit from daycare programs–Larry said the Turtle Road location violated the spirit of the master plan. He was not keen on the project’s aesthetics, either.
“The landscaping’s not up to snuff,” he said. “If I was a resident of the neighborhood, I wouldn’t want to look at the building.”
Board Chairman Cary Lloyd cast the lone vote for the project, asserting that the board could have imposed conditions to address most of its concerns. Vice Chair Michael Leavy was absent and therefore did not vote.
Rainbow Academy, which has dozens of franchises in four states, sought permission to allow its commercial venture into a residential zone, along with variances pertaining to buffer zones, lot coverage, signage and parking space sizes.
Over the course of the hearings, the applicant scaled back proposed enrollment from 194 to 174 children, among other concessions.
But a best-case scenario still would have added about 122 cars to Turtle Road on weekday mornings and early evenings, according to testimony by Rainbow’s traffic consultant, Harold Maltz.
“I see too many insurmountable negatives, especially the traffic situation,” said board member Michael Schmidt, himself a happy graduate of daycare programs in the vicinity.
Blake Silverman, owner of the proposed site, a vacant parking lot that he had planned to lease to Rainbow Academy, declined to comment after the board’s decision. The applicant’s attorney, Joe Sordillo, said it was too soon to say whether there would be an appeal. Yet he expressed admiration for the board.
“I might not agree with the decision, but they gave a fair opportunity to us and the public to be heard,” Joe said.
Guy Falzarano, founder and CEO of Rainbow Academy, said his team of experts did not emphasize traffic as much as residents did. Had it been possible to re-engineer the congested intersection, he said, opposition might have evaporated.
“It’s unfortunate,” Guy said of the outcome. “I think we could have been a benefit to this community, as we are in every community where we go.”
In hindsight, what would he have done differently?
“I wouldn’t have come here!” Guy deadpanned. “I wouldn’t have wasted all this time.”