HOWELL – A 72-unit affordable housing complex was approved unanimously by the Planning Board members after a lengthy discussion.
The meeting stretched on past midnight as representatives from The Walters Group continued their proposal and residents spoke up once again as not in favor of the project. The April meeting of the Planning Board had continued testimony for Howell Family Apartments, LLC that was carried over from the prior February 15 meeting.
The affordable housing complex is to be located at Block 135 Lot 26, at the intersection of West Farms Road and Fort Plains Road in Howell.
The proposal was approved by all 6 present board members. Members including Chairman Robert Nash, Police Chief Andrew J. Kudrick Jr., Thomas Russo and Paul Schneider were all excused from being present at the meeting.
The affordable housing project will be comprised of 72 rental units within nine two-story buildings, an office and community building, a recreational area, and a maintenance building, according to Edmond Speitel Jr., Land Development Manager for The Walters Group, at the Feb. 15 meeting. It is also expected to have a 2,900 square foot clubhouse, 14 one-bedroom units at approximately 800 square feet, 43 two-bedroom units at approximately 1,100 square feet, 15 three-bedroom units at approximately 1,300 square feet, and 143 parking spaces.
Some causes for concern among residents at the previous meeting were the use of Superstorm Sandy monies to fund the project and its proximity to a neighboring farm owned by a Howell resident, among others.
Residents voiced concerns over whether Sandy victims would receive priority in the selection process for housing if Sandy funds are to be utilized for the project. Officials remarked that they would.
At this month’s meeting, further concerns regarding the fire safety precautions taken within the site plan were brought up by attorney Ronald S. Gasiorowski. Gasiorowski represents Howell resident John Bonevich in litigation over the project.
“We know that the site complies with the RSIS [Residential Site Improvement Standards]; we don’t know whether it complies with the health, safety, and welfare of this community as far as fire protection is concerned,” said Gasiorowski.
Gasiorowski referred to a letter from the Howell Township Fire Bureau that contained language suggesting concern over the width of the traffic lanes in the complex.
The letter noted that the lanes should be 30’ wide as dictated by the zoning ordinance of Howell Township. However, they are only 24’, which although complying with RSIS, may cause accessibility issues for fire safety personnel and equipment.
Gasiorowski read from the letter, stating worry that the fire bureau would be “unable to protect this community from the ravages of a fire,” due to the site plan.
The Walters Group representative John Giunco called Gasiorowski’s concerns an “entirely irrelevant line of questioning.”
Gasiorowski inquired whether The Walters Group ever considered exceeding RSIS to accommodate for certain fore safety measures. To this, no one had a definite answer.
In addition to fire safety issues, Gasioroswki also suggested that the community building, maintenance building, and fitness center planned to be a part of the affordable housing complex were not considered residential uses. Traffic engineer John McCormack said that he did not know whether any of these structures would be considered as such.
Following Gasiorowski’s testimony, many Howell residents took to the microphone to voice further issues with the project. First up was Tricia Kelly of Fort Plains Road, resident on the adjoining property to the affordable housing complex location.
Kelly remarked at the previous meeting that she wanted a barrier between her property and the project because she wants to keep her property private and protect her animals. At the April 5 meeting, she requested that an 8 ft. privacy fence be constructed as a solution to this.
“Twenty-three years I have been a resident [in Howell],” said Kelly. “My quality of life…gone, as I know it with 200 people living next to me.”
Another resident, Kathryn Leibel, made a point to inquire how testing was ever done to determine that certain vehicles (fire safety included) would fit into the complex if the project planners were unaware of the specific size of fire safety vehicles in the township, a point which was made by Gasiorowski earlier in the evening.
“Let’s have them adjust it so that it’s more feasible for emergency vehicles to get through,” she said.
“If you put all those apartments, it’s going to be a lot busier and there’s going to be a lot more accidents,” at the corner of West Farms Rd. and Fort Plains Rd., said resident Carmine Longo.
Public comment stretched on for over an hour, taking the meeting into its fourth hour of the evening.
“The only way you can come to an informed decision regarding this, is to listen to your fire officials,” said Gasiorowski in his final comments before a vote was had.
When the time came to make a motion to approve, the board was mostly silent. Former Mayor William Gotto was the first to speak up.
“I understand that this is probably the most difficult project for our town and our community to have listened to,” said Gotto. “As a member of the planning board, I haven’t heard any justifiable reason…to consider not to approve this.”