Zoning board hearings can be like presidential elections. The most votes don’t always win.
An applicant learned that lesson on Thursday, when his Morristown project got rejected despite winning over a majority of the board.
“I’ve been on the board for seven years. That was a first,” said member Scott Wild.
Wild sided with the 4-3 majority in favor of a use variance for Benjamin Gruber, who sought to expand a combined doctor’s office/residence at 59 Franklin St.
The catch: Use variances require five votes, explained board Attorney David Brady.
The decision capped a nearly four-hour virtual meeting, during a snowstorm that shut down New Jersey under a state of emergency declared by Gov. Phil Murphy.
The Franklin Street neighborhood is zoned for single-family homes, a designation upheld when the town revised its master plan a few years ago. Gruber’s attorney, Lawrence Calli, contended his client only meant to expand a grandfathered arrangement that dates back 60 years.
That arrangement has included three doctors, with one tenant living upstairs. Gruber planned to expand the offices and add a carriage house with two apartments.
Board members applauded architect Jeff Rawding’s proposed design; Wild and fellow trustee Barbara McNally, who lives in the neighborhood, welcomed the improvements. Charles Hovis and Chris Hayes voted with them.
But board member Steve Pylypchuk, a civil engineer, argued the applicant failed two tests required for use variances. Gruber did not prove the project would benefit neighbors. Nor had he demonstrated how increasing density and parking and doubling the allowable lot coverage would not be detrimental, Pylypchuk said.
“I don’t see how a more intense use variance furthers the zoning plan” that determined single family uses were best for the neighborhood, the board member added.
Acknowledging he was “on the fence,” Board Chairman James Bednarz raised concerns about the type and intensity of office uses contemplated for the site.
Language in the application referred only to “licensed professionals,” prompting speculation about whether that might include, say, a kidney dialysis business, with patients coming and going seven days a week.
“I don’t know what we’re getting into here,” said Bednarz, who finally voted no.
Beth Wall joined Bednarz and Pylypchuk. Their three votes were enough to stop the project.