Whether Morris Township needs more apartments is debatable.
But this much appears certain: If the debate continues, the municipality will need a bigger town hall.
Every seat was taken, and spectators stood against walls and wedged into a hallway and an overflow room for Monday night’s zoning board meeting, where a pitch for 119 apartments was punctuated by chatter from crowd members toting yellow “Save Convent Station” signs.
“See, now the court reporter can’t hear the testimony when you’re clapping,” board Chairman Tim Kronk admonished the audience, deep into the three-hour session.
“Can you please wait, and you’ll have your turn to make your feelings felt?”
Continuing hearings that began in November, experts for Timbers Inc., a company formed by owners of the Madison Hotel, described revised plans for The Regency, an L-shaped apartment building in the hotel’s parking lot, adjoining NJ Transit’s Convent Station rail station.
The applicant seeks a use variance to allow residential development in an office zone.
“We’re in one of the most congested states in the country, and it’s certainly a congested area. Which is why this makes sense, by putting residents next to a train station,” testified traffic consultant Eric Keller, who called the lot “underutilized.”
Fearing the project will exacerbate traffic congestion anticipated from nearby developments, residents so far have raised more than $2,300 online to hire their own experts. Rob Simon, a lawyer representing several residents, spoke briefly on Monday.
Slideshow photos by Kevin Coughlin. Click /hover over images for captions:
Proposed revisions include trimming the height of the four-story apartment building by two feet, relocating a garage entrance, and sticking with the hotel’s existing Madison Avenue entrance instead of adding a second one, project attorney Martin Newmark told the board.
Newmark also coined the term “unbifurcated” to explain a procedural change. The developers are scrapping a two-step (“bifurcated”) approach, which would have seen them first pursue the use variance, followed by site plan approval.
Slideshow of proposed apartments and present parking lot, courtesy of Martin Newmark, Esq. Click /hover over images for captions:
A combined application will be re-submitted over the next few weeks, Newmark said, and then another hearing will be requested.
Most of Monday evening involved traffic talk by Keller, who studied morning- and evening rush hour traffic counts from three intersections last May and December.
Based on that data, and on industry formulas for predicting apartment traffic, Keller concluded: “It is my professional opinion that this 119-unit apartment building will have a negligible impact on traffic operations of the studied intersections, and of the street network in general.”
Plans also call for a slight increase in parking, from 480 spaces, which now serve a hotel, restaurant, tavern and banquet and corporate functions; to 498 spaces that would include apartment tenants.
“It’s my conclusion that this proposed site plan will provide more than sufficient on-site parking to meet the everyday parking demands, as well as the parking demands for the events that they have at the hotel and restaurant,” testified Keller, who said he is not related to the Keller family that owns the hotel.
His methodology was questioned by Township traffic consultant Joseph Fishinger, Township Planner Paul Phillips, board members and residents.
During his parking presentation, Keller cited the Highlands apartments near the Morristown train station. But the two projects are not comparable, asserted the Township officials.
Groceries, restaurants and the like are within walking distance in downtown Morristown. A car would be more necessary for tenants of The Regency, they suggested.
Phillips and Tronk asked Keller to return with parking information from similarly sized projects in suburban settings more analogous to the Township.
Resident Susan Cantor pressed Keller about why his traffic projections did not incorporate cumulative impacts from development of the former Honeywell headquarters, and of the anticipated build-out of property owned by the Sisters of Charity on nearby Punch Bowl Road.
Keller responded that he does not factor in projects that are “speculative.” Regardless, he reiterated, The Regency’s traffic impact would be “negligible.” The traffic signal at Convent Road and Madison Avenue easily can accommodate the few additional cars that these apartments would generate during peak hours, he said.
Earlier in the meeting, board Attorney Richard Oller swore in new members Samantha Rothman, Lee Goldberg and alternate George Quillan.
Oller asked Goldberg, who contributed photos from the November meeting to Morristown Green prior to his appointment, and Quillan, who lives near Convent Station, if they could weigh the application impartially.
Both said yes, and the developer raised no objections.
In other business, the board memorialized a December approval allowing Columbia Road Partners to convert indoor tennis courts to turf practice fields for team sports.
And the board voted to reappoint Kronk and Paul Woodford as chairman and vice chairman, respectively. Also reappointed to paid roles: Oller, Phillips and Fishinger, along with Township Engineer Jim Slate and board Secretary Sonia Santiago.