By Frank Mustac, Special Writer
HOPEWELL TOWNSHIP — The applicant who wants to build a facility to train employees with special needs to work at convenience stores was told by the Planning Board to go back to the zoning board.
Mark Iorio, president of The Mega Group business consulting company in Hamilton, has helped organize what he describes as a “group of local citizens” who would like to see the training facility added to a proposed Quick Chek combined convenience store and gas station near the intersection of southbound Route 31 and Denow Road.
The Hopewell Township Planning Board in October 2014 denied an application to build the Quick Chek, but Mr. Iorio, who is one of several private investors interested in the project, said he had hoped the Planning Board would reconsider the application if training for individuals requiring assistance for medical, mental or psychological disabilities is incorporated in the plan.
Several heads of organizations in the area that help people with special needs have publicly expressed their support for the training facility, including Peter Bell, president and CEO of Eden Autism Services in Princeton; Steve Cook, executive director of The ARC Mercer; Tim Doherty, executive director of Project Freedom; and Vernon Long, CEO and president of Opportunities For All.
“The Planning Board has a great opportunity here to put Hopewell Township on the map with regard to changing the landscape of how we as a community train special needs workers,” Mr. Iorio said at the most recent Planning Board meeting.
What the backers of the project are asking for, he said, is for the Planning Board to recommend to the Township Committee that the township amend its zoning ordinances to accommodate a gas station with a convenience store that includes a training facility for special-needs workers.
“We’re not looking for a spot zone here,” Mr. Iorio said.
Supporters of the training facility appeared before the Planning Board earlier this year, according to Mr. Iorio, adding that project representatives also spoke before the Hopewell Township Board of Adjustment, which suggested they approach the Planning Board.
Karen Murphy, the Planning Board chair, asked the board’s professional planner, Frank Banisch, for his opinion.
“It’s a very special condition to say you can do business like this provided you do this training — a very specialized kind of training,” said Mr. Banisch.
The professional planner also explained his concern that changing a zoning ordinance to add special-needs training to the list of permitted uses at a gas station with a convenience store could result in an applicant trying to remove the training facility from the project sometime after all final approvals are granted.
Mr. Banisch suggested that an application be made to the Board of Adjustment for a use variance.
“You should go to the zoning board,” Ms. Murphy told Mr. Iorio. “I think that’s where this issue belongs.”
In an interview earlier this year, Mr. Iorio described the proposed training facility as a dedicated area within the footprint of a Quick Chek convenience store building. The facility would essentially be a mini-version of the store itself with a checkout counter with barcode price scanners, shelves for stocking products the store typically sells and, possibly, a food preparation station to practice making sandwiches the store offers.
Mr. Iorio said he envisions each specials-needs employee attending training accompanied by a caseworker. The facility, he said, also could provide training for store managers on how to “interact with the people who are being trained.”
By Frank Mustac, Special Writer