Proposed Warehouse Hammered By Planning Board

MAKING HIS POINT – Planning Board member Robert Thomas makes comments about the proposed Old New Brunswick Road warehouse during the April 17 Planning Board hearing on the matter.

The developer of a proposed warehouse on Old New Brunswick Road was told April 17, in so many words, to get its act together and return to the Planning Board with a more detailed application.

Planning Board members heard about 90 minutes of testimony from two witnesses for the Onyx 789 project – the architect and traffic engineer – before two members figuratively threw up their hands and said, enough.

Problems the Board members – Chairman Michael Orsini and Robert Thomas – had with the project were that they weren’t sure which plans had been submitted to the Board and the traffic engineer’s report did not answer any questions.

The application was heard before a packed house at the Board of Education’s community room in the administrative complex on Route 27. The venue was changed in anticipation of a large crowd, after an earlier meeting in the Council chamber had to be cancelled due to fire code concerns.

Onyx wants to tear down the shell of a retail strip center it spent years constructing and replace it with a 102,733-square-foot warehouse. Between 400 square feet and 500 square feet would be office space, the project’s architect, Daniel Castner, told the Board.

There’s no tenant for the warehouse yet, although the Board was told whoever occupied it would deal in “dry goods.”

The target property is across Old New Brunswick Road – which is privately owned – from the Somerset Woods rehabilitation center and ShopRite, and next to the Crossroads at Somerset retail center.

Problems with the application began to surface under questioning from Mark Healey, the township’s Principal Planner. Healey said that exhibits being projected on screens did not match plans that were submitted to the Board.

“If this is an exhibit that differs from what the board has … we need to understand how this differs,” he said.

Daniel Reeves, the project manager, said the only difference was in proposed signage.

Healey also brought up a planned mezzanine in the building, which was talked about by the architect but was not in the plans submitted to the Board.

“How large is the mezzanine, and what use is the mezzanine,” he said. “If you’re adding floor space, you may be in a position where you’re asking for a parking variance.”

Healey also said that he has asked twice for the accurate height of the building.

The project’s problems deepened with testimony from Elizabeth Dolan, the applicant’s traffic engineer.

Dolan testified that using formulas created by the Institute of Transportation Engineers (ITE), a warehouse the size of what is being proposed would generate about 39 trips in the peak morning hour and 42 trips in the peak evening hour.

“This level of trip generation is not considered significant,” she said. “The idea that this is going to an intensive truck operation is not true. This is not a high generator.”

Board engineer Darren Mazzei noted that Dolan’s report did not specify the route trucks would take to the warehouse.

“This is a pretty interesting question,” she said. “The truck route that’s posted out there is to and from Elizabeth Avenue. But the truck route is through an easement, or we would need an easement. The balance of Old New Brunswick Road … as you approach southeast on New Brunswick from Elizabeth Avenue, once you get past the main driveways of ShopRite and the shopping center opposite it … that’s the same weight limit that’s posted at New Brunswick and the signalized intersection at Elizabeth.”

“So technically, based on the postings, the trucks should be coming to and from Elizabeth Avenue, and that may require us to obtain easement because that’s not a public right-of-way,” she said.

“Have you contacted the owner of that roadway to see if you could get access to that roadway yet?” Mazsei asked.

“No,” the Board was told.

It was at this point that Thomas was visibly agitated.

“Did you evaluate either of the intersections that this facility is involved with. For instance … New Brunswick Road and Old New Brunswick Road,” he asked.

Dolan began to respond with information about ITE standards, but Thomas cut her off.

“It’s time to get out of the ITE manual and let’s face reality,” he said.

Dolan then essentially answered that no, they did not study those intersections.

“May I ask why not?” he said. “You just went through the list of options, and your client has no real legitimate option to his site. He has load limits on New Brunswick Road, and you’re not sure about the intersection of Elizabeth Avenue. So why wouldn’t you analyze both of these things?”

Thomas said he was not sure that trucks would be able to make left turns from Elizabeth Avenue onto Old New Brunswick Road.

“The other side of this project, going out into New Brunswick Road, the shape and the curvature of the streets involved make it virtually impossible for a truck to make a left turn, or a right turn, and stay anywhere near in lane,” he said.

“I just don’t understand,” Thomas said. “The ITE manual can give you all the numbers based on 100,000 square feet, but as a Board we have to consider beyond that.”

“Isn’t it true that whatever use comes in there is going to affect the traffic?” Thomas asked.

Dolan began her answer by saying, “It may …” but Thomas cut her off.

“No, no, no, no, no, no ‘it may’,” he said. “will it or will it not affect the use of the roads and the traffic circulation, whatever the use.”

“This application is going south,” he said. “you don’t have the proper paperwork, you don’t have a plan, you didn’t do a study on the only entranceway that gets people off the public roads and into this facility, we have no idea what effect that’s going to have, even if it’s just one truck an hour. We don’t know, as you just agreed, it could be more than that because we don’t know what the use is eventually going to be.”

“I would think with an application like this, I would be in here with a signed agreement with a private driveway,” he said. “You don’t even know if you have use of that.”

The improvements to Old New Brunswick Road “were devised to be pedestrian friendly,” he said. “You have bricked crosswalks, you have sidewalks. People were supposed to be able to park in ShopRite and go across to the other shopping center and walk if they wanted to.”

They’re supposed to be able to cross Elizabeth Avenue,” Thomas said. “The Board, when we approved that project, asked the County to leave that light on Elizabeth Avenue specifically for these purposes. Both of the lanes in that driveway are designated bike lanes. I’m not sure any number of 18-wheelers would fit in with designated bike lanes.”

“I can’t believe there isn’t a little more comprehensive and detailed study on the use and the interaction between these different vehicles,” he said. “I think you all have a lot of work to do.”

Orsini agreed.

“Your plan is certainly based on assets that you don’t really have,” he said. “Moreover … that road is intended, because of the multi-use center across from ShopRite, for pedestrian access. It’s got bricks, it’s got speed humps, they’re going to be destroyed. The ShopRite trucks don’t come that way, they go down Elizabeth and in the back. They don’t have to come that way.”

“Yours do, and the only alternative would be to bring them down New Brunswick, or through Elizabeth, but you can’t because you’re too close to the intersection,” he said. “You don’t even have access, so I don’t know what you expect to do with that, or what you think the Board can do with that.”

“I’m not prejudging anything, but I’m just saying I don’t know how we can evaluate the application fairly when what you’re asking for, you don’t even know if you can do,” Orsini said.

Jim Stahl, Onyx’s attorney, said it was important for the applicant to hear what the Board and public have to say about the project.

“The Board commented, and other people will, and to the extent there are shortfalls, we don’t just put our tails between our legs and go home,” he said. “We’ll be back at the next meeting.”

Orsini told Stahl that all of these objections raised by Board members and staff could have been worked out if the applicant had agreed to meet with staff after having been invited to twice.

“I’ll be frank, we’re wasting our time here,” Orsini said.

“It’s not a waste to hear what the Board has to say and what the public says,” Stahl said.

“It is a waste of time and I’ll tell you why,” Orsini said. “It’s a plan that we don’t know you can execute.”

“So the public can come up here and say, well, you know, it’s probably not a great idea to bring tractor-trailers down a roadway that you don’t own or you don’t have access to … you don’t need the public to tell you that, you don’t need us to tell you that, it’s common sense,” he said.

“Your plan, by necessity, either has to change, or you have to acquire that easement,” Orsini said.

Thomas went further.

“The only suggestion, and I know it’s mine so I’m prejudiced, but I think it’s really worth it, is for you to withdraw without prejudice and don’t come back until you come back with a different application,” he said.

Stahl said that he was not prepared to say whether the application could be withdrawn. He said that his experts would set up meetings with Township planning staff to go over the issues brought up during the meeting.

The final issue faced by the project is the fact that it abuts a buried liquid gas line owned by Buckeye Partners.

Buckeye’s attorney told the Board that there are certain restrictions as to what can be built on top of the pipeline. Orsini said Buckeye representatives could meet with Township planning staff to iron out the issue.

The project is slated to be heard again by the Planning Board at it’s May 1 meeting, assuming all plan changes are completed and submitted to the Board in time.

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