No joke: April Fool’s meeting gives Morris Township residents their say about hotel plans

HEAR YE, HEAR YE: On the third try, Morris Township succeeded in hosting a Zoom hearing about a proposed hotel, April 1, 2021. Screenshot by Marion Filler
By Marion Filler

This time, they got lucky.

Thursday night marked the Morris Township Committee’s third try at a special public hearing for a 225-room hotel proposed at 340 Mt. Kemble Ave.

At first, a 15-minute glitch made it look like an April Fool’s joke. But things smoothed out and 80 viewers logged into a Zoom session spanning more than four hours.

No vote was taken on the redevelopment plan. Mayor Jeff Grayzel made clear up front that this meeting was about listening.

“We made the promise back in February and in March and in April that this governing body is not going to take action at this very first meeting,” he said.

The first two hours included comments from the Committee and a replay of Town Planner Paul Phillips’ original explanation of the project. The next two hours were devoted to public questions, answered by Phillips and Committee members.

Morris Township Planner Paul Phillips, April 1, 2021. Screenshot by Marion Filler

William Needham, who lives on about three-and-a-half acres across the street from the proposed hotel, was the lone resident in favor of the project.

“Any attempt to dress up an aging office park structure…is the way to help the property generate new business into this township. It’s a way of keeping it alive,” he said.

His sentiments coincided with those of planner Phillips: Office parks are struggling and must explore innovative, mixed use redevelopment to survive.

In the case of the 35-year-old former AT&T building, empty since 2014, redevelopment by Onyx Equities LLC gives the Township more control over the project than any other option, according to Phillips.

However, it’s another story if you live adjacent to the 40-acre site, according to callers from Frederick Place and Ironwood Road.

Excessive lights, construction noises, and an undefined buffer zone were among topics of concern.

“If you stood on the outside of your house in the middle of the night, you would be lit up like there were giant beams coming at us,” said Rosemary Gilmartin of Frederick Place. She had a photograph to illustrate her point.

View of proposed Morris Township hotel site from Rosemary Gilmartin’s backyard. Screenshot by Marion Filler

“This is not a little issue, this is something that a few trees are not going to fix.”

Brenda Burns, also of Frederick Place, said she has made several calls to Onyx LLC, about light spillage and beeping back-up noises from trucks. It hasn’t changed anything. She dreads living through another major construction project.

Dan Riff of Ironwood Road commented that it appears the Township is more concerned with keeping Onyx happy than protecting residents. He was sure that “any property owner on the Board wouldn’t want this in his backyard.”

Grayzel asked for names of Onyx personnel who neighbors have contacted, and said that interior night lighting is required for ongoing construction within the AT&T building. He was not clear if that will be an ongoing condition.

Citing the example of Restoration Hardware, the Township’s extensively negotiated Abbey restoration, several members of the Committee described how buffer zones and light spillage were resolved in due course. Cathy Wilson suggested a meeting of residents, Township officials and Onyx representatives would engender trust among the parties.

Attorney Scott Carlson said the Planning Board could use the buffer zone to hold up approval of the project if necessary.

Phillips noted that the length of the proposed hotel would face Mount Kemble Avenue, and the narrower side elevation, with many fewer windows, would back onto Frederick Place.

Morris Township committee conducts virtual hearing about hotel plan, April 1, 2021. Screenshot by Marion Filler

Burns and neighbors Jen Avers, Annaliese Rush and Jefffrey Beyer questioned the need for a hotel, when the original purpose of the project was to refurbish the A T& T building.

Several others claimed to be blindsided by the hotel, which they said was not mentioned at the first redevelopment meeting in March 2019.

Phillips explained that the two meetings “are mutually exclusive events.” The 2019 gathering determined whether the site qualified for redevelopment.

“That was the only thing on the table at the time,” said Phillips. Once that was ascertained, Onyx proposed the hotel plan now under review.

Phillips emphasized that the hotel may not be built at all if Onyx is faced with issues that make it impractical. He speculated they could include feasibility and traffic studies, the state of the economy, and the resurgence of the pandemic.

If Onyx flips the AT&T building, the redevelopment plans remains in place no matter who owns the property, he said.

Grayzel and Wilson were joined Thursday by Committee members Mark Gyorfy, Peter Mancuso and Bud Ravitz.

They will hold another meeting to address unanswered questions from residents and their attorneys, who were not heard this time.

The date and time for the next hearing will be announced on April 21, 2021, during a regular meeting of the Committee. In the meantime, more details and a recording of Thursday’s meeting should be posted soon on the Township website.

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  1. This is a great idea, would welcome a hotel at that location. This site was dead empty for almost a decade, so the complaints now that it’s coming back to life are silly. Great for the township, very convenient location for out of town guests and another revenue generating, tax paying business for the Township. Stop the NIMBY nonsense