Sound familiar? Morristown office expansion wins board vote…but still loses

The office/residence at 59 Franklin St. now, left, and as re-imagined by architect Jeff Rawding. The Morristown zoning board rejected the proposed expansion, Dec. 16, 2020. Composite by Kevin Coughlin
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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.

Morristown zoning board ponders Benjamin Gruber’s proposed expansion of 59 Franklin St., via Zoom, Dec. 16, 2020. Screenshot by Kevin Coughlin

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.

 

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6 COMMENTS

  1. That was part of the confusion, Linda. In my opinion, reducing the density of the non residential use and the major changes proposed to the facade could have provided a huge benefit to enhance the residential character of the neighborhood, especially considering what is permitted now. The traffic pattern was improved and adding parking spaces to the rear, eliminated the need for patients to park up and down Green Hill road , as they had been doing for years. Newer resident were unaware that although the original doctors moved, their use was still permitted and the variance proposal would have not just reduced the density of non residential use but also provided for all the parking to remain on the site. To my mind the board did the equivalent of “throwing out the baby with the bathwater” as my mother used to say.I lived opposite that site and for 45 years was constantly reminded of its negative impact.

  2. Facts matter; I support Mr. Bednarz, Mr Pylypchuk, and Ms. Wall on their decision.

    “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.”

    The board often hears an applicant express his wish to live on the property. That wish is not part of the deliberation.

  3. Unfortunately, Ben Gruber never lived to see the end of his dream to return to live in his hometown,Morristown with his wife. The final proposal even eliminated the carriage house to the rear after some neighbors expressed their opposition to what they called a garage.
    Many supporting neighbors had left the meeting not expecting the case to be heard at such a late hour or were unable to attend the virtual meeting with the storm raging outside. Some board members were not clear about the fact that the uses proposed were for the purpose of limiting the density permitted by the prior variance and not expand them. The uses suggested by board members were the opposite of the proposal. They seemed determined to finally end this case after years of postponements and delays. Historic character was never considered.

  4. It’s the same thing as the backyard chickens from a few months ago – laws and zoning are there for a reason. If everyone can get on the same page and pass a variance, so be it. Clearly, there was opposition – so the zoning law wins out.

  5. It’s a shame that they can’t make this property look a bit newer. I think that’s what I added a bunch of value to the neighborhood and two historical Morristown itself. It’s a shame that I couldn’t get done.

  6. I don’t see anything wrong with this proposal. And it updates the building to make it beautiful again. Shame on the board for not passing it.

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