Miracle or Monstrosity? Morristown residents sound off on M Station

Resident Vera White says M Station can bring corporate jobs while still 'looking after the little man,' June 27, 2019. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
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It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, in which the “stars have aligned” to bring high-paying jobs, a public plaza and overdue traffic improvements to a Morristown strip mall sorely in need of a facelift.

It’s a “monstrosity” that will drive another wedge between the downtown and low-income residents of the Second Ward, destroying affordable eateries, adding traffic, and hastening Morristown’s transformation from a charming, historic town to a mini-city of monolithic buildings.

Both descriptions were offered Thursday at a lively, and at times testy, public workshop about M Station.

The standing-room-only session at town hall was meant to give residents their first in-depth look at a proposal to replace the Midtown Shopping Center, a strip mall designated for redevelopment more than a decade ago.

Preliminary plans pitched earlier this month to the town council call for nearly 400,000-square-feet of offices and shops, in two buildings rising eight- and six stories, along with a four-story parking deck and traffic “roundabout,” at Morris and Spring streets.

Architect’s rendering of M Station, June 27, 2019. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

But Thursday’s two-hour question-and-answer workshop quickly began to feel like a referendum on Morristown’s future, a pivotal moment for residents concerned that development of their three-square-mile hometown is proceeding too far, too fast.

“We love Morristown because it is not New Brunswick, it is not Newark, it is not Camden, it is not Paterson. It’s not a small city, it’s a small town. And a project like this, because of the scale of it, it takes away exactly what makes Morristown so special,” said resident Andrew Rosenberg.

The evening also trained a hot spotlight on the project’s point man, attorney Frank Vitolo, a town resident who placed his reputation and credibility on the line to an extraordinary degree.

Attorney Frank Vitolo leads public presentation about M Station project, June 27, 2019. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

Vitolo, a partner in Riker Danzig, has represented large apartment projects and a hotel in Morristown. But he asserted M Station developer SJP Properties has done more legwork than any of them, and is courting Big Four accounting firm Deloitte (“the most community-minded corporation in America”), among other major tenants.

They will bring 1,000 high-paying jobs, and these workers will patronize local shops and restaurants, he predicted.

Standing room crowd listens to M Station pitch, June 27, 2019. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

“And what you can’t do is let opportunities like this slip by,” Vitolo said. “The stars have aligned with this developer. They’re willing to make an unprecedented investment in this town. And it will really keep us in the game for years to come.”

The developer also will make an “unprecedented effort” to help relocate businesses displaced from the strip mall, Vitolo said.

Midtown Shopping Center tenants include the Morris Pizzeria–a favorite, Vitolo said, of his children–and Cluck U Chicken, Macho Nacho and Molnar Pharmacy.

“And I assure you of that, that’s going to happen. Because I live here too. And I have to see you all on the street. I got neighbors, you know, like you all do. And I’m going to make sure that the developer, the town, the Morristown Partnership, that everybody works together to keep the retail that wants to stay here, in Morristown.”

Potential relocation venues include 30 commercial storefronts and five restaurants that are vacant, Vitolo suggested.

But strip mall businesses won’t survive on South Street, the town’s main thoroughfare, countered Council President Toshiba Foster, who also wanted more specific traffic projections.

FORTRESS OR MAGNET?

At one point, when audience members started shouting comments at the M Station team, town Planner Phil Abramson urged them to wait their turn, out of “basic respect.”

One man from the Second Ward contended the town wanted to replace the strip mall because “it draws ‘unsavory’ people instead of suits. You’d rather have suits.”

Another Second Ward resident compared M Station to Headquarters Plaza, a massive urban renewal project from the 1970s that looms like a fortress between the historic Morristown Green and the Second Ward.

Peter Bronsnick of developer SJP Properties, center, addresses Morristown residents, June 27, 2019. He is flanked by traffic consultant Matt Seckler and attorney Frank Vitolo. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

“Why would you put (another) monstrosity up there? You talk about dividing people. You are, when you put something up like that. You’re dividing the Second Ward from the rest of the town,” the woman said.

Vitolo took exception to such claims, pointing out that his law firm was HQ Plaza’s first tenant in 1980. The firm has hired many Second Ward residents, its employees spend money downtown, and he and fellow partners serve on numerous boards, he said.

“Three hundred nonprofits in Morristown. You know who supports nonprofits? We do. The corporations, we support the nonprofits,” said Vitolo, who has served on the Morristown Partnership, the Morristown Housing Authority and Morris Arts.

“We’re out there, we’re in the community, and we’re making change, and we’re employing people. So you just can’t underestimate that,” the lawyer said.

GIANTS COME IN ALL SIZES

Vera White, also from the Second Ward, drew cheers with a passionate defense of “The Strip,” as some patrons call the shopping center.

“I can’t go to Roots and get steak,” White said, referring to a pricey South Street restaurant. “But I can go to the pizza store and get my kids some pizza. I can go to Macho Nacho.”

Deloitte may be a giant, she continued, but can it top Molnar’s?

White noted that she suffers from severe asthma. When a fire destroyed her home in 1985, a man from the pharmacy “came out to my house during the fire to bring me my medicine, because he figured out that I didn’t get out of the house with it. That, to me, is a giant.”

Describing M Station as beautiful, and acknowledging Midtown Shopping Center owner Scotto Properties’ right to re-develop its site, White urged the developer to keep the existing businesses as well.

“We can have those buildings, and we can still look after the little man. We can still look after the merchants. I think that we should be able to do both those things,” said White, who works for the town and served with Vitolo on the housing authority.

Architect’s conception of M Station, June 27, 2019. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

The Gensler architectural firm’s proposed design includes a tree-lined, 45-foot-wide promenade along Morris Street, winding to a public plaza on Spring Street — public spaces equivalent to about half a football field, according to architect Roger Smith.

Traffic consultant Matt Seckler differentiated roundabouts from traffic circles, contending roundabouts are designed to keep traffic flowing at 15 mph, with pedestrian-activated beacons for safer crossings than at circles or traffic lights.

Some residents expressed skepticism that drivers and pedestrians would learn to navigate a roundabout. Seckler said roundabouts have worked well in Princeton, Westfield and Rutherford.

Presently, he added, making left turns from the strip mall nearly is impossible.

The roundabout, and a proposed realignment and traffic light at Spring Place, would solve that problem and easily send M Station traffic back to I-287, he said.

This roundabout only is feasible with this project, Seckler said, because the partners own all necessary properties. No condemnation procedures are required.

‘NO DONE DEAL’

Audience members asked about Deloitte’s deadline for approvals, reductions in the project’s scale, and green design features. Those answers were for another day, however.

Donna McNamara, from Morristown’s Historic District, said companies like Deloitte are trending toward smaller offices because more employees are working remotely. She predicted employees would drive, or commute by train, to M Station and then go home.

“It’s going to be an island…and all this about helping all of our restaurants and retail is not going to happen,” McNamara said.

This is what zoning would allow in place of the Midtown Shopping Center strip mall, according to SJP Properties. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

M Station had supporters, too. Andrea Lekberg, who opened The Artist Baker cafe on Cattano Avenue a decade ago, welcomed the prospect of more foot traffic.

“I think it would help the cash flow. I think a lot of businesses are struggling,” she said.

Doug Greenberger, a commercial landlord whose family goes back five generations in Morristown, called M Station “a wonderful project in a world that is not going to stop growing….We can get the cars in, we can get them out. We cannot stop progress.”

Town Administrator Jillian Barrick addresses audience, while town Planner Phil Abramson looks on, June 27, 2019. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

Councilman Robert Iannaccone and Morris Township Deputy Mayor Cathy Wilson attended the workshop.

Representing Mayor Tim Dougherty’s administration, town Administrator Jillian Barrick reminded the crowd that the proposal is in its infancy, and the workshop provided valuable feedback.

“There’s been no deal made behind closed doors. This is not a done deal. There’s no ribbon tied. There are elected officials in this room, nobody has voted,” Barrick said.

“We’re not shoving anything down your throats. If we were, we wouldn’t be here.”

MORE ABOUT M STATION

Resident Lorena Inestroza got a laugh when she asked M Station developers to bring holiday fireworks to Morristown. Project attorney Frank Vitolo: ‘When you give us the eight stories, we will put on the biggest fireworks display in the history of Morristown.” Photo by Kevin Coughlin

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32 COMMENTS

  1. I see both sides to the issue people here are discussing. Brings back memories of many towns I would visit on Long Island where I grew up. Today, I can’t stand the place. Over development, traffic, endless blacktop, etc. I’m seeing similarities here in Morris county. Why is it always about development and rateables? Local government needs to be fiscally responsible within the means of the current environment (residents/business) without depending on or expecting future increases from development. Some people enjoy the small town charm when they move into a community and aren’t interested in change.

  2. !) the town has been hearing proposals for Spring Street since 2002. Meanwhile, the businesses in the strip mall soldier on.
    2) The property in question is a redevelopment zone. That means the council gets to decide thumbs up or down. Variances are not an issue in a redevelopment zone.
    3) Not long ago the property owners proposed a hotel for this site. What has changed their plan? In the meantime, the state redevelopment rules changed!
    4) Linda Stamato’s point, ” To consider this proposal in a vacuum, that is without considering what else may be in the offing in the area, is to miss an opportunity to envision—and plan—the entire area,” I second her opinion.
    5) Please regularly attend council and redevelopment meetings. At one point the town had nine redevelopment zones at the same time. Check the agendas on line. If you have nothing to do, come to a board of adjustment meeting. We were meeting until almost midnight last week. The room is air conditioned.

  3. Connor,
    Instead of having a knee-jerk reaction to my post, please re-read it, and you will see that I neither agreed nor disagreed with the project.

    For me the issue is your identity. You always can disagree with me and others, but if you’re ashamed or worried about the opinions of others, your comments will always be taken with a the proverbial “grain of salt.”

  4. lol @ Rosary – I have no stake in the project at all. I live in Morristown – moved here a few years ago. I need to prove my identity before disagreeing with you on here?

  5. Rosary to Connor: “I do not agree with your opinions, therefore no one should hear them. ” When you can’t support your argument with facts, just try to shut down the opposition.

  6. @Jeff – The right to express their opinion is what is being questioned and I defend that.
    I would agree with your comment on the right to post lies with the forum owner.

  7. @Rosary – Connor has the right to express an opinion just like anyone else regardless of who he/she is or their stake in a project. Its an open forum, you may not want to respect their views but you have to respect their right to post it.

  8. Connor:
    You have a lot to say on this subject. We know who Margret is, we know who Jimmy Cavanaugh is, and we know who Charles Sprickman is, and they have been up front about their stake in this project.

    We don’t know who you are and whether you have a financial stake in this project. Until we do, I urge the community to pay little attention to your posts on this subject. I don’t want to listen to the opinion of someone who hopes to become rich as a result of this project.

    Prove me wrong and I’ll pay attention and if I agree, I’ll urge others to do so.

  9. @Charles, its a completely different layout with a mall like atmosphere inside and no street frontage to the shops. I had no idea what was inside until I visited the movie theater a year after moving to town – to James point, that was the anchor store that brought me in there.

    Also, prime real estate in downtown has a much better use than a parking lot and one story strip mall. If you’re going to drive and park somewhere anyway, put it a 5 min drive outside of the downtown area where it makes little difference in a car but a big difference in walking time. Parking problems will just get worse if you never put jobs within walking distance to the larger residential communities.

    Nobody is saying to allow them to take the money and run – but have a discussion what can work here with what they’re proposing instead of just bashing every developer and new idea that comes to town.

    @ Margret – “so often differ from the residents” – how are you even judging this? I could say the same thing about your views. I believe you were against most bars and more restaurants on South St which thousand of people frequent and are usually crowded, and which have also led to revitalization of the town over the last 10 years. I think we can measure their success against your opinion by the amount of people they attract – no?

    Once again, nobody is saying get rid of the Green or any meaningful historical landmarks – I would agree everyone loves them and also again, part of the reason I moved here. That doesn’t mean stop development around the town.

  10. Charles, having been involved with developing shopping centers, I’ve learned the difficulty of holding tenants in a mall without a popular anchor tenant. Headquarters lacks this, as a result smaller tenants can’t survive in this environment. What’s proposed, store fronts, which are visual will have a much better chance, as long as parking is convenient.you can’t compare the 2 concepts.

  11. Connor (last name blank) has an interesting perspective. Calling HQ “different” (how? because it’s older?) when in fact there are many similarities – high-rise office tower with parking deck and a retail floor.

    Pointing at the strip mall or HQ and saying “they are outdated” is fine, but cuts to the heart of the problem with these projects. Developers take the money and run. Why is HQ dated? Why is the retail portion dead? Is the solution to dated buildings really to just drop shiny new ones that will suffer the same fate in 10 years? It’s kind of funny that Connor points to two properties that I’m sure when they were built were sold to the public in exactly the same way as this one – new stuff to wipe away the old blight.

    I’m sure HQ and the strip plaza could both be made into great places again. The “strip mall”, for all it’s ugliness is a big winner in convenience – one of the few places you can drive to and park. It could literally be revitalized with new signage, paint, proper lighting, stop signs and re-striping of the spots/lanes. I’d love to see HQ’s main floor full of people and retail, but it’s not, and unless you can answer why not, well…

  12. Jeff who are you to tell people there are more suitable places to live if they don’t like the development going on in this town. How dare you. The development is not for the greater good of the families who currently live here and have been for many generations. There’s plenty of office spaces, businesses, establishments, restaurants and amenities already here for us local residents to chose from. WE LACK NOTHING, CURRENTLY. We gain more places people can’t afford to eat at, more head ache construction, more traffic and speeding on our children’s streets because when they finally find a short cut around all the traffic, they fly down that street as fast as they can to get out of the already horrendous traffic problem, more empty parking garages, etc. You say go find a more suitable place to live to our local residents. Really? How about developers go find a more suitable place to develop, an area that’s a bit bigger than 2 square miles. We have plenty of vacant office space throughout the town. How about using your head a little instead of fattening your pockets.

  13. Thank you, Connor and Jeff for you comments which help to understand why you so often differ from the residents, brave enough to use their names. Visiting the place you were born once a year can naturally give you a different perspective. I spent my first ten years living in Brooklyn, and it had a major impact on my views about the importance of neighborhoods and street life anywhere.
    The Connor looks at new development from a business perspective, makes his comments more understandable.
    My comments are based on my vision of what Morristown can be and what I feel have led to its success and sustainability as a community. The 4th of July crowds, on a hot, muggy day say a lot. I doubt any of them came here to admire the new development or growth. I feel the biggest attraction in Morristown is its historic Green, not as it was in its early days but in the way the Trustees have “developed” it in a manner that honors history, educates the public and remains attractive by limiting the way it is used. Its not just a new building, no matter where, but how it fits into its setting in our community, limited by its topography and street patterns that impact any project. As a member of the Parking Authority, I have been involved in many projects that are far from historic in character but attempted to preserve the scale and balance of the Town, with currents needs rather than simply trends or design fads. Its a delicate balance. Everyone has a right to their opinion and to debate the issues but I find it helpful when I know the viewpoint of those making comments expressing a strong bias for new proposals.

  14. Both sides of this issue have opinions that are justified in their own minds. Some live in the past and others look to the future. We all believe in respecting the history of our great town. Reality is the costs of running morristown are in the hands of a mayor and council who spend our tax money like its their own. Legal issues, tax abatements to the mayors friends political friends on the town payroll. Are just a few of the reasons we need more and more ratables. There isn’t a single qualified person in control.

  15. Charles, HQ plaza is a different animal. It has little street facing shops, and the layout is completely different. It also needs modernization. A lot of jobs are held in these towers though.

    Thanks for calling us “delusional at best” however, believe it or not, investors, companies, and yes developers can also have care for a community at the same time as making money. Lets talk about the project and its details, like why a dated strip mall and parking lot are better for this town, rather than just saying of course its bad cause its proposed by developers you assume must be bad.

    Yes, parking directly next to your store in downtown may be a little difficult sometimes. I find it ridiculous to restrict development cause of this. Again, lets talk about it. Isn’t there another larger garage going to be hidden behind Grasshopper?

    Lastly, there’s a lot more than just banks and bars in town so I’ll ignore that one. Not sure how skipping this projects changes the mixture of businesses anyways.

  16. Fascinating that no one notes that HQ plaza, which is also large and has plenty of deck parking, has a totally dead first floor “mall”. Why will this new iteration of that be any different?

    People thinking developers that come to town for a quick buck have the town’s interests at heart are delusional at best. Unplanned growth without any regulation is a recipe for failure. I already leave town to shop because it’s frankly easier to do that than to deal with daytime/weekend night traffic and parking. The town will just keep repeating this until we have a blighted downtown that’s just banks and bars. I don’t get why “pro small business” people are in favor of plans that drive your daytime customers away.

  17. Morristown is the 1990s and early 2000s was DEAD. No one wanted to come and visit and that is coming from someone from Mendham. Now– people from Mendham flock here to eat and for entertainment. Its a business hub…. That plaza is worthless for that land. Those tenants can move elsewhere in town. Deloitte will provide SOLID jobs and bring a huge boost to daytime traffic. No one here is saying anything bad about Morristown, because we all love it. But– progress is progress and its necessary to keep us all moving FORWARD and not BACKWARD

  18. Margret, I have NEVER denigrated Morristown. You made that up. I was born in Morristown, my father has operated businesses there, I lived there for 10 years, and I visit every year.
    I love all the development and its progress out of obsolescence and to where it is today. It was a rather dismal place until all of the redevelopment has happened. Again, Morristown is already the urban center of NW New Jersey. I don’t see a problem with it becoming more dynamic.
    What I have a problem is with the tired old colonial schtick. Morristown isn’t Williamsburg, and its historical features aren’t going anywhere. But it’s time to embrace the present an future and not live in the past.

  19. No hidden agendas here Margaret. I live right in town, in the neighborhood behind Wells Fargo/Iron Bar strip. I also own a small business in Morris County. I can say the same thing you did about other people’s comments I don’t like or agree with. I have a business mindset and want to keep history in the town just as much as anyone else. I do not “denigrate” the town just because you don’t agree with my vision for it. What I don’t want is the restriction of development that adds life, activity, investment, interesting place to frequent, and jobs to the town. Lets have a discussion rather than making unsupported assumptions about the other person.

  20. I’ve lived in Morristown for over 20 years. I’m enthused about this project and — considered alongside the opposition to the Silverman project on South Street, which I also concur with (and which puts the lie to Faith’s claim the administration “has never met a developer it didn’t like”) — believe it represents a good balance of preservation against development. It’s entirely sensible and looks like a reasonable fit for its location.

    That said, I think it’s pretty impolite to demand to see peoples’ credentials or imply they have ulterior motives when they express opinions. Outright stating people have “hidden agendas” is frankly offensive.

  21. Margret I mostly agree with them and have been a Morristown resident for 5 years and a Morris County resident my whole life

  22. I’m curious about who or what, Jeff and Connor represent. They often comment and criticize area residents who post comments and yet never reveal where they live, their full names or what it is they support. They consistently denigrate the Town, and its past history. They never consider any other factors involved, while supporting any development proposed. Do they have any understanding of basic facts that impact development, like its road systems, topography and the impact of non-taxpayers like the county, the religious facilities and charities that have expanded to support needs far beyond the Morristown community. Stretching anything beyond its capacity creates problems. Let’s reveal the hidden agendas here and use some common sense.

  23. Faith Teeple, is there any project you support for the area? Or just leave everything the way it is and expect the same life and activity to come into town? Really, an old strip mall and parking lot are better for the town than a bustling office hub with retail and shops below? Have a conversation about the development of it rather than just throwing everything negative you can possibly think of at it, with the presumption that we should never development the town with new buildings like this. We all would be stuck where the town was 15-20 years ago with that mentality.

  24. Faith Teeple, first, Headquarters Plaza and the second ward are both in Morristown. If anything, HQ Plaza only divides it from DOWNTOWN.
    A lot of Morristown real estate is not taxed. This will help bring in tax revenue.
    More importantly, it will help pump more life into downtown.
    Morristown is the urban hub of NW New Jersey, and this will further reinforce that position.
    For those who don’t like that, there are other places that might be more suitable.
    In the ’70s and ’80s downtown Morristown was sinking. It was lifeless and was coasting along on the tired old colonial schtick.
    Let’s hope there are more projects like this one.

  25. Why does our town need more office space and traffic? There’s plenty of empty office space in the area. Vitolo can brag about Headquarters Plaza build years ago, but it is still detested and an eyesore to many residents. It was the first giant building to divide the second ward from the town. And now the town proposes another one !!…It seems like nearly every project in town requires lots of variances.. Seems like anyone with money gets approval to build a cheap-looking eyesore. Look at the new thing going up next to town hall; looks like quick shoddy building..Also, why does the Morristown Planner, P. Abrams, present, explain, and defend the developers’ proposal for this area and not the developers aside from their attorney? Or has the Administration already approved the development in prior-not-transparent meetings with developers? Seems like this Administration has never met a developer it didn’t like!!. Oh for transparency !!! Wish we knew about what all the suspected behind-the-scenes deal making happens at town hall. Residents are concerned that development of their three-square-mile hometown is proceeding too far, too fast. Let’s hope there are lots more meetings about this proposed development which does not serve the citizens of Morristown and would destroy the businesses on the strip which are doing just fine.. When does it stop? The developers cash in, and the residents are stuck with more traffic and a diminished quality of life.

  26. MorristownGreen has done Morristown a service once again by providing thorough and balanced coverage of a meeting that had more than the usual number of attendees. It’s clear from the concerns expressed—and some of the ideas that surfaced—that public input is essential, not only in helping to flesh out the proposal, but in making the ultimate project a success. To consider this proposal in a vacuum, that is without considering what else may be in the offing in the area, is to miss an opportunity to envision—and plan—the entire area. In order for this kind of conversation to take place, though, the town has to facilitate it. The relocation of businesses, temporarily or permanently, moreover, also requires the participation of the town and the Morristown Partnership, not only to preserve successful, small businesses that are critical to their communities but also to retain the character and diversity of the town. Private developers can not do this on their own, nor should they be expected to do so.

  27. Agree with Andrea. The town needs more day time visitors to shops and restaurants, and I would add more storefronts open after business hours outside the main Iron Bar area. A large firm like Deloitte will absolutely be buying lunch, meeting snacks/food, client dinners, etc etc at the local stores. Not to mention supporting the new housing developments with people looking to walk to work and live in a nice place. I know my company of 1000 does it all the time where we are.

    I don’t want the scale to decrease here – I would just reiterate others points that some good thought should continue to go into creating unique pedestrian areas, and seating/eating areas in that wide pedestrian strip. Maybe some interesting spots besides cookie cutter development, such as restaurant seating space in a nice cove/alley way with neat lighting and cobblestone pathway, restaurant/bar section in one of the top floors, etc. Something unique and inviting

  28. I Live in Morristown and have a small business in Morristown. I have had the business for over 10 years now. I want to first talk about the M Station proposal as a business owner. My business has been successful because of a balance of the local community (people who live in the Morristown area) and the business community. They are both valuable. For my business, which is a daytime business, I need more people around Morristown during the day, who have already parked their cars or taken the train in. And workers are great customers. They like to leave their desks and explore the culture in Morristown, and I like that the bakery can be part of that culture.

    As a resident I like that the M Station buildup is downtown towards the train station and not a high building on our outskirts. When I walk around town and look at a building like 40 Park on the Green, that building is 7 stories. And I think 40 Park works in a small downtown. The proposal’s highest building is an 8 stories and set back much further from the street than 40 Park. So I think this will work visually. The design firm has offices in Morristown which is good. It’s good because they are always around town and have an understanding of what people like about Morristown. They took a lot into consideration as opposed to an outside firm just putting their brand on a building in town. As a community resident my concern with the building is the ground floor retail. This is the section that connects the two communities. I don’t want to see a big building put in the community that has nothing for the community. It can’t be only serving the tenants, it won’t be sustainable.

    I would like to see this team that has been put together be more progressive and have a stronger vision about the use of the ground floor space, more than benches and trees. As a resident this is what I will see and use.

  29. It would be fascinating to know what all the behind-the-scenes dealmaking is here. If you’ve been following the EDA scandal down in Camden, it makes you wonder what sort of horse-trading happens when these unpopular projects and unaffordable housing plans come up.

    The marketing is strong, but with all the empty office space in the area (the township has what, a 35% vacancy rate?), what’s the need for more office space and the traffic that accompanies it?

    It seems like nearly every project in town requires a variance. What’s the point of planning if you just grant anyone with the money approval to build some cheap-looking eyesore. That thing next to town hall, anyone else notice that place has all the quality building materials of a treehouse?

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