Want to increase participation in local government? Propose a daycare center.
Residents came out in droves to kill centers pitched for Morristown in 2014 and 2015. Now, a proposal in Morris Township is galvanizing opposition from both municipalities.
The Learning Experience wants to replace a Colonial Revival home at 1 Whippany Road with a two-story, 11,960-square-foot childcare facility.
Residents say it will bring excessive traffic along with colorful signage and ugly aesthetics that will mar their “quaint” Washington’s Headquarters neighborhood, which straddles the Township/Town border and once boasted magnificent estates of the Gilded Age.
They packed Monday’s meeting of the Township zoning board, where the applicant seeks a variance to allow commercial use of the residential property.
The Learning Experience enters this fray with an upper hand: Daycare centers are considered “inherently beneficial” by the state. Zoning boards must prove that negatives outweigh the social positives of such uses.
Yet that’s exactly what happened to The Learning Experience in 2015. After nine hearings that Morristown developer Sam Samman estimated cost him $250,000, the Town zoning board rejected his proposal for a center at Madison Avenue and Normandy Parkway.
Residents successfully argued the center would pose traffic nightmares at that congested intersection; a housing development was built there instead.
Traffic issues also torpedoed a proposed Rainbow Academy daycare operation on Turtle Road in 2014. Residents hired a lawyer for that fight, which spanned four lengthy zoning board meetings stretching back to the previous year.
Taking their cues from those battles, residents have retained attorney Ira Weiner, and the Washington Headquarters Concerned Neighbors started an online drive to raise funds to hire experts. They have raised more than half of their $5,000 goal since the end of March.
The Concerned Neighbors are keying on three areas:
- Traffic and parking. Approximately 180 students and 25 staff will come and go via a single Columbia Turnpike driveway twice daily. Residents fear increased traffic and U-turns on Columbia; Kary Way; and Georgian, Olmstead, Whippany and Woodside roads. “The quiet, safe environment that drew us all here in the first place will be compromised,” according to the Concerned Neighbors.
- Property values. “Adding this commercial structure to our quaint neighborhood will not only look terrible, it will compromise the Historical framework of the neighborhood. Property values could go down.”
- Precedent. If the daycare center is approved, neighbors contend, the next proposal could be “a Hess station or 7-11… Stop the commercial encroachment.”
On Monday, Larry Calli, the attorney for applicant 1 Whippany Road LLC, presented testimony from project architect Matt Jarmel and traffic engineer Matt Seckler.
Addressing aesthetic issues raised at a February meeting, Jarmel showed an updated design that added window shutters, a cupola and toned-down colors for the roof and siding.
“The windows look pretty dinky for a building of that size,” commented board Chairman Tim Kronk.
As for signage lighting, Jarmel said it could be switched off on weekends, when the center would be closed, and after the center’s weekday operating hours of 6:30 am to 6:30 pm.
The center would generate 70 vehicle trips during the busiest morning and evening hour of operation, according to Seckler.
Some of the children attending Learning Experience centers are siblings who are delivered and picked up by the same car, he said, adding that about 10 percent of the kids are absent on any given day.
Forty parking spaces are proposed. Seckler said that number meets industry standards; he projects an average demand, based on other Learning Experience centers, of 29 spaces. Most parents only drop off and pick up their children, he said, while some of the 25 staffers are likely to carpool or take mass transit.
The property sits on a triangular island, bounded by Columbia and Whippany roads and Lindsley Drive. When a board member inquired how children would cross those busy streets in an emergency, Seckler said he presumed emergency responders would be present to halt traffic in such circumstances.
No off-site field trips are planned for the pre-schoolers, Seckler added. (The Washington’s Headquarters Museum and Acorn Hall are nearby.)
Board member Samantha Rothman asked the applicant to add a sidewalk, for commuters walking to a bus stop in the vicinity.
MORRISTOWN COMMISSION WEIGHS IN
Because the daycare center would have a “negative impact” on Morristown neighbors, the Morristown Historic Preservation Commission has come out against tearing down the late-19th century house.
Designed by local architect Frank Colburn, it’s an “unusually fine example” of the Colonial Revival style, “contributing significantly to the historic character of both the Township and the Town,” Commission Chairman Ken Miller said in a letter to the Township zoning board.
Replacing this home with what is “basically a rectangular box, obtrusive, and bland” — replete with vinyl siding, inexpensive windows, fake dormers and “garish” signage — would be “a tragedy for the Town and Township,” Miller asserted.
While not listed on any historic registers, the house could qualify, he said. He urged the applicant to adapt the structure for daycare use, office space, subsidized group housing or “as the centerpiece of a multiple unit condo/townhouse complex” that preserves the neighborhood’s character.
Jarmel, the project architect, countered that the house is not ideal for modifications. “The residence is not in good structural condition,” and does not meet local codes for handicapped access and fire sprinklers, he told the board on Monday.
“To gut the inside would make (the project) economically unfeasible,” the architect stated.
Miller’s letter also suggested reviving decade-old talks to create an historic district spanning both municipalities, stretching from Normandy Parkway to Lafayette Avenue, and including more than 100 houses built between 1860 and 1940.
The Township zoning board, meanwhile, is scheduled to continue the daycare hearing on June 24, 2019.