Zoners face deadline on project vote

Hearing on Jackson Commons
set to continue in September

Staff Writer

Zoners face
deadline on
project vote
Hearing on Jackson Commons
set to continue in September
Staff Writer

Members of the Jackson zoning board could decide at a Sept. 22 meeting to grant Leigh Realty of Brick Township two variances it needs to build Jackson Commons, a 2.9-million-square-foot, 38-building commercial campus at East Commodore and West Commodore boulevards and Cedar Swamp Road, according to Michael Kelly, chairman of the board.

Kelly said the environmental commission and Jackson’s traffic consultant must still submit their reports to the board.

David G. Earekson, vice president of LGA Engineering and a civil engineer with the project, said an additional traffic report from developer Mitch Leigh’s expert would be submitted next month.

It was indicated at a previous meeting that if the application is complete and the board does not take a vote on it before the end of September it would automatically be approved. However, Kelly said that would not happen. He said the board would vote on the application before the mandated time limit expires.

Leigh Realty seeks preliminary site approval of the Jackson Commons project in order to begin construction of the four regional storm water management facilities and the internal roads that are the foundation of the project’s infrastructure. The application is before the zoning board rather than the Planning Board since Leigh is requesting two variances.

The first variance, if granted, would permit Leigh to build a 55-foot tall hotel in an area zoned for a building no higher than 50 feet. The second variance, if granted, would enable Leigh to build a warehouse distribution center in a high­way commercial zone. Leigh will make a separate application for each building he constructs in Jackson Commons, accord­ing to his attorney, Raymond Shea.

The board began hearing the applica­tion at a special meeting in May. Shea indicated to the board on July 21 that Leigh would not grant an extension of time if asked to do so. That would leave only the Sept. 22 meeting, which begins at 7:30 p.m., to discuss the application be­fore the board must vote on it.

Kelly said no meeting was scheduled in August since zoning officer Richard Megill and three board members would be on vacation at that time.

Jackson Commons is proposed on the site where Leigh previously proposed Towne Centre. That town-within-a-town concept would have included residential and commercial components as well as an artists village. Public opposition led Leigh to abandon the plan.

At an April meeting of the Jackson Chamber of Commerce, Tom Bovino of Leigh Realty said the developer still be­lieved in the concept of Towne Centre, but planned to move forward with Jackson Commons.

Leigh is just as determined to win ap­proval from the Planning Board for an application that also incorporates ves­tiges of the former Towne Centre. He is seeking final approval to build 130 homes on West Commodore Boulevard. The board will begin hearing that application when it meets on Aug. 16 at 7:30 p.m.

The application represents the first phase of a residential development now called Leigh at Jackson, which would ex­tend south to Freehold Road when built out. Leigh will eventually seek approval to build more than 1,500 additional homes in the development, according to Shea. The attorney said at the July 21 zoning board meeting that the application may end up in court.

According to Mayor Sean Giblin, who is a member of the Planning Board, an approval granted to Leigh in 1988 to build 1,641 homes lapsed last year. The mayor said Leigh would have to reapply to the Planning Board for approval to build the remaining homes. Giblin said Leigh would be subject to many of the or­dinances adopted by the Township Committee over the past three years to slow the pace of residential development in the community.

Not so, countered Shea.

Shea said on July 21 that he would present his legal argument for building all 1,641 homes under the more favorable terms of the 1988 approval when the Planning Board hears the application. He declined to disclose further details prior to the Aug. 16 hearing.

That did not stop residents from com­menting on the impact of the two applica­tions as testimony continued on Jackson Commons in front of the zoning board.

Shea introduced Lester J. Nebenzahl, a planner with THP Inc. of East Brunswick. Nebenzahl laid out the tax benefits that he said could be reaped from Jackson Commons. Based on what he called a conservative estimate, he calcu­lated that Jackson could earn as much as $4.5 million a year. However, he said that if current market values were used to cal­culate future tax revenues, that figure could be doubled to $9 million a year.

Kelly questioned the validity of either estimate.

"My concern is that this estimate is market driven," he said.

Kelly said he worked in Piscataway, which employed Nebenzahl as a consult­ing planner. Kelly said he saw empty in­dustrial parks around Piscataway. He said his concern was that much of Jackson Commons could also stand empty.

"Why put in big buildings" during a market turndown? Kelly asked. "I’m very skeptical about how much you can make over the next 10 to 15 years."

Eareckson had previously estimated the build-out of Jackson Commons at a minimum of 15 years.

Members of the public applauded Kelly’s comments, but he signaled them to stop.

"That was not for my neighbors," he said. "I just don’t want to have a clone (in Jackson) of what we have in Piscataway."

After Nebenzahl concluded his testi­mony, Eareckson described Ocean County’s plan for road improvements in the area of Jackson Commons. He stressed that the roads were not being widened to accommodate Leigh’s project. He said county officials made the decision to widen County Line Road in advance of plans to design Jackson Commons.

Eareckson also said Leigh had dis­cussed with county officials plans to build a traffic median on West Commodore and East Commodore boulevards. He said the median would provide visual aesthetics as well as traffic calming benefits.

Kelly told the audience that construc­tion of such medians is a growing trend throughout New Jersey.

During the public forum, many people who addressed the board remained op­posed to the idea of truck traffic going to and from a warehouse distribution center in Jackson.

"We don’t want to welcome trucks," said Joseph Giuliano of Brittany Lane. "I don’t see how trucks will make a hotel successful. I would scrap (the idea). That’s my suggestion."

Jonathon Wood of Olena Drive was also opposed to the idea of a warehouse distribution center. He said he moved from Staten Island, N.Y., to Jackson and pays $8,400 a year in property taxes. He said he is active in the community where he now lives.

"It breaks my heart" to hear your plan, he said. "I don’t care about the increased (tax revenue) coming in, you can raise my taxes. Keep Jackson the way it is."

Lee Revell of West Commodore Boulevard said she believed a warehouse distribution center would be a threat to homeland security as well as an envi­ronmental and traffic hazard to residents. She based her opinion on her past pro­fessional and personal experience. Revell said she had experience in the retail mer­chandising industry.

Shea asked her the last time she had been involved with a warehouse distribu­tion center.

Revell told him 1992.

"I don’t find you a credible witness," Shea said.

When asked later if market forces might also result in fewer trucks loading and unloading at the warehouse distribu­tion center, Eareckson said yes. He said that some residents had asserted trucks would use all 300 bays every hour all night long. Eareckson said it was an un­fair and possibly inaccurate expectation.

"You would think we were building it tomorrow based on what they said," he said.

Mark Seda, the Republican candidate for Township Committee, also addressed the zoning board. He voiced his opposi­tion to the project as it is currently pro­posed.

"No matter how you slice it, this ware­house will hurt us," Seda said. "Let’s pro­ject in a smarter fashion."

Phil Lisa of Tracey Place said he had supported Leigh’s proposal for Towne Centre, but he does not support a ware­house distribution center with truck traf­fic.

"I still support clean ratables," he said, "(but) the dirty stuff’s gotta go."

Resident Garry Black had a different suggestion for Leigh.

"Forget the residential development (Leigh at Jackson)," he said. "We can do without it."