HOWELL – Three times appears to be the charm for the owners of property located at 29 Howell Road, who secured approval for a warehouse project last month.
Plans call for the construction of two, one-story warehouse buildings with office space. The square footage of both buildings totals nearly 425,000 square feet. The larger of the two will have 55 loading bays with two drive-in bays; the smaller will also have two drive-in bays and a total of 28 loading bays.
A map listing the township’s potential affordable housing sites indicates the same site was once under consideration for 278 residential units, with 60 designated as affordable apartments.
Some residents have stated the property’s location between a swim club and a ball field made housing a better alternative. However, the landowner decided otherwise in submitting plans for approval.
The Planning Board considered the warehouse proposal at two separate meetings in September and October 2021. A 3-3 tie vote after the second hearing resulted in a denial of the application. The board’s resolution issued in December of that year acknowledged the warehouse was a permitted use. However, the denial for preliminary and final site approval was based on what was characterized as insufficient information on specific issues.
Remediation of contaminated soil, location of potential graves in an adjacent cemetery, traffic circulation issues, and parking spots surfaced as reasons the application was denied.
AAFFHW Property LLC., also referred to as the Forman Family subsequently went to court and asked for judicial intervention on the decision. Owners of the property are named as Clayton, Peter and John A. Forman.
“Prior to the Superior Court holding hearings and issuing a decision, the parties entered into settlement negotiations,” explained Planning Board Attorney Ronald Cucchiaro. “The Board approved a settlement agreement, which permitted the applicants to come back for what we call a “Whispering Woods hearing.”
Whispering Woods refers to a 1987 court case that says settlements between applicants and planning boards require an additional step. A public hearing on the agreed plan must be held, just as if it was a new application presented to the board.
Although the board initially approved the settlement, it denied the application after it was presented in a public hearing last September. The applicant proceeded with litigation.
“Judge (Gregory) Acquaviva ruled against the board and held that the applicant had complied with its statutorily required burdens of proof, with the exception of the design waiver relief,” shared Cucchiaro. “Which wasn’t really addressed because the board had denied the application on other grounds.”
In a 28 page order remanding the matter back to the Planning Board, the court gave instructions limited to consideration of design waivers and the imposition of reasonable conditions upon preliminary site plan approval.
Apparently aware that traffic concerns remained an issue to at least some of the planning board members and the public listening in, Cucchiaro spoke on the subject.
“The court has simply rejected the traffic arguments,” reminded Cucchiaro. “The board has no choice; it has to listen to what the court said.”
Trucks coming in and out of the warehouse are projected to use Okerson Road because of weight restrictions on Howell Road.
The court also ruled that the environmental issues and matters related to the graveyard had been sufficiently addressed by the applicant.
The erection of a sound barrier wall, reorientation of buildings, and tractor trailer parking were the remaining items left for the planning board’s consideration.
Jeromie Lange, a professional engineer and planner spoke on behalf of the applicant, identifying changes to the plans since previous hearings.
A sound wall is planned for the easterly property lines or side yard area, with the exception of a piece that punctures into the Michael Curtin Lane front yard. A landscape buffer will also add to the sound wall with the warehouse property owners obligated to maintain it.
“The purpose is to provide an additional visual and sound attenuation buffer between us and the neighboring residential property,” explained Lange.
Christine Cafone, a professional planner also spoke on behalf of the applicant. She reiterated Lange’s statements, saying there were no requirements for the buffer. The plans were simply to provide better buffering for adjoining homeowners.
Lange mapped out the reconfiguration of the buildings which will impact truck circulation on the property as well. Entry points to the property are set for the north side and southwest portion of the project.
During the public commentary session of the hearing, Kathy Okerson of Okerson Road attempted to discuss her concerns about the stormwater management. Cucchiaro advised her that the court felt the applicant had satisfied ordinance requirements and it was therefore not open for discussion.
“What about the difference between the two lighting that they’re talking about?” asked Okerson. “Which light would benefit not lighting my house up like a Christmas tree?”
Lange explained the different types of lighting proposed for the site and assured Okerson that fully enclosed lighting fixtures would prevent what he referred to as “light trespass.”
Albert and Jacqueline Cestero, who have lived at 3 Howell Road for forty years, expressed their concerns about heavy pedestrian traffic in the area. They specifically wanted to know if the developer planned any improvements for Michael Curtin Lane as far as paving or sidewalks.
“No on the paving,” said someone on behalf of the applicant. “Yes, on the sidewalk.”
One of the other conditions of the approval included confirmation that there would be no light spillage on adjoining properties.
At least one other resident said they attempted to speak during the public comments section of the hearing but were not afforded the opportunity to do so. The Planning Board unanimously voted to approve the Preliminary and Final Major Site Plan – heard as part of a second Whispering Woods Settlement and Remand Hearing.
The onset of COVID-19 meeting restrictions resulted in many public bodies turning to remote access. Howell’s governing body returned to in-person sessions some time ago. Residents also have the ability to watch council meetings from the privacy of their homes.
A number of people have questioned why Howell’s planning and zoning boards continue to meet remotely and not in-person. Of the 58 municipalities in Monmouth County, Howell is one of four that have not returned to face to face meetings.
Howell is the largest of the communities that has not either offered a combination of in-person meetings and remote access or done away with computerized access. Avon, Deal, and Roosevelt all have populations under 1,800 total residents. According to the 2020 census, Howell’s population was 53,537 and continues to grow.