Tuesday, July 23, 2024

Strip Mall or Not? Question Carried to Next Planning Meeting in Green

Some attendees at the March 14 Green Township land use board meeting gather around the architect’s exhibit. Photo by M. Gardiner, 03/2024.

Dozens of residents attended the March 14 Green Township land use board meeting to learn more about an application for a subdivision and a new, nearly 10,000 square foot commercial building off County Route 517 and Kennedy Road.

Commencing at 7 p.m., the meeting took place at the Kennedy Road firehouse in anticipation of a large crowd, which indeed showed up. Three hours later, the matter of whether the proposed building would be deemed a strip mall or not was carried over to the next meeting and no final decisions were made. 

The property at 57 Decker Pond Road, also known as County Road 517, is currently the site of the Brix liquor store.

Application

Attorney Jason J. Rittie represented the applicant, SAKS Development LLC., who seeks to subdivide the property, located in the neighborhood commercial (NC) zone district into two proposed lots.

“Before we get started, as part of the initial application, we were seeking approval to relocate the existing liquor slash convenience store to the new proposed lot,” Rittie said. “We are withdrawing that request. The existing Brix liquor store will remain in the existing building.”

Rittie said his position was that the project would not result in a strip shopping center, which is prohibited under the township ordinance.

“We will only require one variance for signage,” Rittie said, adding that there are a number of design waivers that were distributed to property owners within 200 feet along with others.  “The threshold issue we can get right out of the way is whether this is a strip mall or not. ” 

Board attorney David Brady then addressed a potential conflict of interest wherein the applicant’s attorney, Rittie, had formerly represented a board member in a legal matter. However, Rittie noted his representation of the board member was limited to a variance and was what he called a “one-and-done,” and has not represented her since.

Robert Simon introduced himself as the attorney for residents Andrew and Rennee Seaman, whose property on Kennedy Road borders the proposed commercial development. 

Simon asked for more information about Rittie’s past representation of the board member. Rittie explained that the matter concerned a variance for a residential property horse fence, and he hadn’t represented the board member since. Neither Simon nor any member of the public objected to Rittie’s past representation of the board member nor perceived a conflict of interest.

After a brief review to determine completeness of the application, the board proceeded with the hearing to interpret whether or not the proposed commercial development fit the township’s definition of a “strip shopping center.”

Board attorney Brady announced that proceedings would continue until 10 p.m. and any further discussion or testimony would be carried over to the next meeting. He established early on how that night’s hearing would involve both attorneys for the applicant and neighbor calling witnesses, who would be sworn in and then questioned by each attorney and the general public.

Applicant’s planner testified

Rittie called professional planner Donna Holmquist of Montvale as a witness.

Holmquist said the applicants created a “courtyard shopping center,” not a strip mall. She added that the proposed building was not parallel to the roadway and the structure’s shape was varied in an “L” shape, with entrances far back from the roadway. Holmquist said her opinion was that the proposed structure was not linear.

Holmquist said 70% of parking spaces were not facing the roadway, since most of it was tucked into the courtyard of the building’s L-shape. Since she would expect to see a single line of stores all facing the street with parking in between, Holmquist said that she did not believe that the application met Green Township’s definition of a strip mall. 

During his questioning of Holmquist, attorney Simon brought up a potential legal issue referred to as a “Raspberry” matter with the application, which could change the procedure and structure of the hearing.

But board attorney Brady said the existing liquor store was already approved as a permitted use, falling within the convenience store category. He said the Raspberry matter would have been an appropriate inquiry about the use and continued operation of the existing liquor/convenience store if it were moved into the new building. 

Brady said the land use board is not a board of enforcement, and questioned if it would be appropriate for it to go back and re-examine a decision that was already made in 2017.

Rittie argued against the Raspberry relevance to the case.

“As you indicated, this was approved in 2017,” Rittie said. “The appeal period has long expired, there’s a liquor license that’s been situated at the site that’s been renewed continuously for years. So, this is not an opportunity to revisit that.”

Simon disagreed.

He argued that the 2017 decision was a site plan waiver application that was based on a property that is different from the property that is now being proposed, with different buffers, lot areas and a major subdivision. He said that even though the applicant now plans to keep the liquor store in place, because of the planned subdivision, the liquor store now moves back to a smaller lot by default.

Brady made clear that Simon would have a “fair shot” to present his side but suggested that the matter of whether or not the proposed building constituted a strip mall be settled before discussion of the Raspberry issue goes forward.

“That dealt with a case where there was a use that was pre-existing, it was nonconforming in the zone and there was an application to shrink the property it was located on,” Brady said. “That was the Raspberry’s case, and it stands for the proposition that when you have a non-conforming use and you shrink the property you need a special type of variance, a D2 variance.”

Simon now turned back to planner Holmquist and the focus returned to the “strip mall issue,” as it came to be referred to by many that night.

Holmquist said the township’s master plan limited the concerns about strip shopping centers to a few issues and cited the “varied” layout and design of the applicant’s building would not meet the definition of a strip shopping center.

Simon asked Holmquist which parking spaces are not really visible from the street, which she indicated were the spaces in the “courtyard” part of the site. 

Simon questioned what part or parts of the building would be considered “parallel” to the street, which was part of the township’s definition of a strip shopping center. Holmquist said part of the building is parallel to the roadway, referring to a part of the L-shape, but not the entire building. Simon then then questioned about exception relief concerning the building’s setback from the road and questions concerning the definition of a linear plane in this context.

Simon asked Holmquist a hypothetical question, whether a property would be a strip mall if all parking was located behind the building. He asked the question three times before Holmquist agreed that a linear building with 40% of parking in front and 60% behind it would be prohibited as a strip mall.

Two members of the public asked questions about lighting and signage, as well as the location of parking spaces.

Applicant’s architect testified

Next, Rittie called architect Ken Fox of Fox Architectural Design in Ledgewood as a witness. He asked Fox why the application should not be considered a strip mall. Fox said that the majority of the building did not face the street and did not meet the architectural definition of linear orientation in regard to the strip shopping center definition. 

Fox referred to an architectural rendering of the proposed commercial building, reviewed design standards. He pointed to offsets in the building’s design, noting that the definition calls for undulating walls of different planes. 

Simon questioned Fox regarding the design of the building and property. Fox was asked about the emphasis on linear orientation of the building in the definition.

After much back and forth, ultimately Simon asked if Fox agreed there was no definition of the linear orientation in the ordinance. Later, Simon asked Fox if it was fair to say that the building had multiple architectural linear orientations.

“Yes,” Fox said. 

The questions later turned hypothetical again and Simon revised a particular scenario as part of a question, ultimately asking Fox if a 350-foot building with offsets to provide definition every 40 feet would be permitted under the township ordinance.

“Probably not,” Fox said. “Because, probably, the…parts of the offset that are in the same plane would probably exceed 120 feet if you did that.”

Fox argued that his plan conformed with the township ordinance, arguing that 108 feet total in one plane is less than 120 feet as called for in the ordinance and is therefore in compliance. 

Residents asked Fox about building planes, how they were measured and the overall length of the building.

Neighbor’s planner testified

Then, Simon called professional planner Andrew Thomas of Brielle as a witness.

Thomas said his professional opinion in reference to the township definition of a strip shopping center came down to elements that the application was a prohibited use under the township ordinance when asked by Simon.

Thomas said it met the definition of a strip mall under the ordinance because it was a single building with a number of different commercial uses, then turned to linear orientation.

“The question is: Is the building configuration generally parallel to the roadway?” Thomas said. “And I would say, yes, a significant part of the building is parallel to the roadway.”

Referencing prior testimony that night, Simon asked Thomas about his conclusions as a professional planner regarding whether the offsets on the building design can be used to, in essence, start a new plane.

“That’s not what the ordinance says,” Thomas said.

He added that the ordinance refers to “any plane” that can be a maximum 120 feet long, the building offsets are there to provide some architectural interest and diversity and cited location of the majority of parking between the road and building.

“The majority of the parking is located between the front portion of the building and the street,” Thomas said. “And I would call – you heard about the ‘front courtyard’ portion – I would say that that frontyard portion is between the building and the street. Because, certainly there’s a building between that portion and the street.”

“There’s a total of 29 parking spaces within this area,” Thomas said, referring to the area of the courtyard and lower parking lot, counting 19 spaces to the side and back. 

When asked by Rittie if the Brix liquor store would meet the definition of a strip shopping center, Thomas said yes. 

There were no questions from the public when time was offered, and the matter was carried to the next meeting.

Morgan Gardiner
Morgan Gardiner, Contributing Writer

Morgan Gardiner is a journalist and broadcaster based in Northwest New Jersey. Born and raised in Warren County, Gardiner graduated from McGill University and was previously an on-air newscaster, reporter and producer for WRNJ-AM. When not chasing down a news story, Gardiner fills his time with books, family, friends and traveling.

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