Planners give nod to apartments

Development to be built on former egg farm that fronts on Route 9, Howell


Aplan to build 220 rental apartments on a former Route 9 egg farm in Howell was given the green light by the Howell Planning Board at a recent meeting.

The AST Sunnyside Road LLC site plan, which proposed to build 22 buildings containing 60 affordable housing apartments and 160 market rate apartments on the former site of the Cutler-Rubenstein egg farm and 17 additional acres, was approved by board members at the conclusion of a Nov. 12 public hearing.

Affordable housing is defined as housing that is sold or rented at below market rates to individuals whose income meets regional guidelines established by the state Council on Affordable Housing (COAH).

Apart from an abstention by Howell Mayor Robert Walsh, who was sitting in at this meeting in order to offset the absence of several Planning Board members, the decision was unanimous, despite objections to the plan from members of the public.

The apartment complex has been an issue of concern for nearby residents since earlier this year, when the Howell Township Council adopted an ordinance that changed the property from 2-acre residential zoning to a planned mixed-use district.

In the original agreement between the applicant and the municipality, Howell officials agreed to use $1.6 million in open space funding to purchase 17 additional acres to the rear of the Cutler-Rubenstein property. The rear of the egg farm borders White Street.

The front of the egg farm border borders Route 9 north, just north of the Sunnyside Road jughandle.

A total of 118 housing units were to have been built on the remainder of the site — 100 townhouses at market prices and 18 units to be set aside for people who qualify for affordable housing.

In January it was revealed that Howell would not purchase the rear part of the property. Instead, AST Sunnyside Road LLC would now build 42 additional affordable housing units and 60 additional market rate units.

Walsh said an agreement between Howell officials and the developer was made more than two years ago and arose from a lawsuit and a memorandum of understanding between Howell and the applicant.

Due to these circumstances, the applicant sought approval from the Planning Board in order to move forward with the development of the apartment complex.

At the Nov. 12 meeting the board heard testimony from the applicant’s traffic engineer, Berge Tombalakian.

Previous hearings included testimony from the applicant’s engineer and architect, and issues raised by the board and residents regarding several aspects of the plan were addressed and rectified by those professionals.

Tombalakian presented a traffic study that outlined the impact the apartment complex would have on Route 9 traffic, given its state highway access point. The report covered traffic counts at the intersections of Route 9 and West Farms Road, Georgia Tavern Road and Sunnyside Road during peak hours.

The traffic impact, which Tombalakian concluded to be minimal, also included potential commercial development in its assessment.

The traffic engineer also noted that while the existing jughandle at Sunnyside Road is only used for U-turns and left turns, the addition of an access point on the highway would require the jughandle and the development entrance to be shifted in order to provide adequate spacing.

“The state Department of Transportation [DOT] has jurisdiction over this and any modifications caused by the application,” Tombalakian said. “We are in the process of getting a DOT access permit, but our study shows no adverse traffic impacts along Route 9.”

Tombalakian said the applicant may eliminate the front entrance gate, depending on final recommendations from the Howell K-8 School District Board of Education. An initial conversation with the district’s business administrator indicated that either one bus stop for the entire apartment complex or the removal of the gate would be best for school busing, however, no decision has been made, he said.

“We want to sit down with the Board of Education as soon as possible. Our intent is to move on with them quickly,” Tombalakian said, while noting that bus maneuverability is not an issue within the apartment complex.

Some residents came forward with concerns about the development’s impact on Route 9 and road-related problems, along with other perceived issues about the site plan.

Resident Robert Donahue, a local firefighter, expressed his concern about emergency vehicle access to the site.

“I would recommend widening the roads. It’s an issue of protection … The gate could be a potential obstacle for police and fire (responders) as well,” he said.

Attorney Todd Cohen, representing the applicant, assured Donahue that the developer is not looking to restrict access to the site and said a condition of approval is that the plans are subject to a review by the fire bureau.

Resident Grace Abramov discussed her concerns about storage space for occupants of the affordable housing units, which are the only apartments in the complex that do not come with a garage.

“I have a problem with the storage for the affordable housing units. There is no place to put bikes, sleds or children’s toys. I am concerned as to how this will be handled,” she said. “There may be a multitude of bikes without the proper storage available. In order to keep the development pristine, there either has to be better storage or specific restrictions.”

This sentiment was shared by members of the Planning Board, who called for the 3- by-6-by-9-foot storage bins allocated for the affordable housing apartments to be expanded.

“It really should be all garages or no garages. Make a choice,” board member Norbert Nowicki said. “But if there are financial issues with that, as you have said before, then these storage bins need to be bigger.”

Developer Robert D’Anton agreed to expand the storage units by at least one foot and said he would make them as large as possible given the space allotted.

While many residents harbored concerns regarding the apartment complex, the most vocal have been Albert Hurley and Greg Fox, both of White Street, who retained attorney Edward Liston to represent them and filed suit against Howell for what they contend was spot zoning of the property.

Attorney Kelly Johnson appeared in place of Liston at the Nov. 12 hearing, and brought in planner Donna Miller to assess details contained in the site plan.

Miller also serves on Howell’s Ordinance Review Committee, a position that Cohen argued was a conflict of interest to the application.

Planning Board attorney Ronald Cucchiaro allowed Miller to testify and said the matter of the potential conflict will be looked into at a later date.

Miller raised several environmental issues with the application and specifically took issue with perceived wetlands on the site.

“The area along the jughandle contains a discernable channel and there are environmental issues beyond what the applicant has proposed to the board,” she said. “Ditch water can be considered regulated waters and in this case the criterion is met to be considered a waterway. Under this determination, the wetland is afforded a riparian buffer.”

In addition to wetlands concerns, Miller discussed what she called site plan design problems, including an insufficient amount of pump stations, over-extensive grading and clearing of trees in steeper slope areas, a lack of storage space for residents’ belongings, a failure to dedicate a right-ofway for the access road and an insubstantial amount of landscaping.

“I’m just not comfortable with many aspects of this application,” Miller said. “It’s going to be detrimental to the township if certain problems are not resolved.”

Cohen introduced environmental attorney Neil Yoskin, who addressed many of the concerns raised by Miller.

“The jughandle ditch is not regulated waters. It is not connected to any regulated channel or pipe,” Yoskin said. “This is a man-made ditch and not a naturally occurring waterway.”

Yoskin said the state Department of Environmental Protection has already received a wetlands Letter of Interpretation and said it was determined the ditch in question is not a waterway, but he agreed to resubmit the letter to satisfy the objector.

As a last effort, Johnson noted that the application should not be approved without DOT approval.

“They do not have DOT approval yet for the Route 9 access and you cannot grant a subdivision approval without that. Wetlands was a big concern for us, but it does appear that was addressed,” Johnson said. “But the application is split and there is a problem with separating the commercial and residential. One will impact the other as changes occur. It is best to wait until those issues are fleshed out.”

There is some property at the site of the apartment complex that has been set aside for possible commercial development.

After Johnson concluded her remarks, Cucchiaro said the application could be approved before access approval from the DOT is received, as long as DOT approval is a condition of the site plan approval.

Following a few clarifications needed by the board and the professionals, board member Evelyn O’Donnell made a motion to approve the application of AST Sunnyside Road LLC.

Voting to approve the AST Sunnyside Road LLC application were board members Police Chief Ron Carter, Paul Boisvert, Robert Nicastro, Norbert Nowicki, Vincent Tantillo and O’Donnell. Walsh abstained from the vote.