ZBA Finally Rejects Mountain Way Development
The board didn't take its president's advice and instead focused on resident concerns.
After about four years of stops and starts, plus hours of testimony and deliberation, the Zoning Board of Adjustment voted 4-3 to deny an application for a controversial townhouse development called 700 Mountain Way. The vote came along at the end of an emotional meeting Wednesday night at Town Hall.
Area residents appeared before the board to make passionate last-ditch appeals to the board to reject the development's application.
Arnt Thuen of Mountain Way argued that he saw no need for another townhouse development in an area filled with single-family standalone residences.
"Given the density of the neighborhood, its zoning and character, adding additional single-for the master plan as it stands," he said. "The master plan applies, it is still a good plan. There ought not be a need to provide a variance to the applicant to intrude on the character of Mountain Way as it currently stands."
Thuen took a verbal swipe at the developer's plan to surround the townhomes with trees on all four sides.
"Is this is something the applicant is sure will fit the neighborhood?" he asked, noting the number of manicured lawns in the area. "It seems to be counterintutive. ... If you're so proud of it, why hide it with trees?"
The applicant's attorney, Robert Garofalo, later shot back: "We are proud of it. We don't want to cover it up. But the neighbors don't want to see it. That's why we're covering it up."
Tom Cordtz of Rocky Heights Road reminded the board a few times that the developer touted the "walkability" of its proposed townhouse community.
"Walkability? There are no sidewalks in any of these plans," he said. "Besides, where are you going to walk to? More children will be prevalent there. There are no sidewalks. The intersection of Mountain Way and Old Dover Road is pretty dangerous. How are these children going to get out and about?"
Cordtz added that there was no need for a municipal master plan if a project that needed so many variances from it could win approval.
"I think it's making a project that's large and stuffing it into an incompatible site," he said.
Naturally, Garofalo, representing the developers, disagreed. After thanking the board for sitting through "a long, arduous and sometimes tedious process" over the last few years," he vigorously and aggressively defended the project.
Noting that the developer was asking for three variances—for use, density and steep slopes—he asserted that his experts had shown that the 00 Mountain Way project would be positive for the area and that the positive attributes outweighed any negatives.
Garofalo argued that the applicant had worked hard to accommodate neighbors' wishes.
"The applicant originally filed for 38 units [for senior housing]," he recalled. "After discussions with the board and input from neighbors, we reduced it to 22 units on 20 acres and removed the age restriction."
The lawyer said the master plan must be viewed with the "proper perspective," noting that the plan will be upgraded in 2014 and that the town has already begun the process of re-examining the plan.
In the meantime, he said, many things have changed since the last re-examination of the plan in 2004, which included the statement that Parsippany needed no more townhouses.
"We've had the largest economic depression since the 1930s, including the local real estate sector," Garafalo said. Housing remains unaffordable for many in New Jersey... Zoning practices have resulted in lack of land, leading to the need of housing with smaller units."
He also pointed to a significant downturn in large-lot activity.
"The town itself is dealing with applications for redevelopment of properties," he said. The town, which has the master plan [calling for] no more multi-family townhouses, is approving applications for townhouse development. They're not paying a lot of attention to their own master plan. The demand for housing has changed. The Board of Adjustment's job is to deal with existing conditions and they have changed dramatically."
Garafalo insisted that the applicant proved positive criteria for the project and showed absence of negative impact.
"This application if approved will have no substantial detriment to the public good," he said. "The key word is 'substantial.'"
Then he attacked the expert anti-development resident group Preserve Mountain Way hired to represent those opposed to the project. According to Garafalo, the expert's testimony did not include many pertinent facts when he offered his opinions.
"As such, they should be discarded by the board in its deliberations," the lawyer said. "All [the opponents'] issues require expert testimony, especially when they talk about impact on property values. Their expert provided a case filled with allegations and there is no support for it."
When the ZBA conferred to share their opinions on the matter, board members did not see things the way Garafalo did.
Saurin Pathak stated the concern of many, that the density of the project—about 2.3 residences per acre in an area geared toward single-family homes on two-acre lots—was too high.
"There are definitely some environmental concerns and some utility improvement costs to the city and some impact to the neighborhood," he said. "Some neighbors will be left unhappy. I am leaning towards no."
"The area is zoned for two-acre lots," said member Brian Kelley. "There is a large-lot subdivision there reserved for single-family housing and it think it should remain. To put cluster housing in here changes the aspect of the whole community, and I see that as a detriment."
"I don't know how much is going to be hidden with the trees; that's one of my concerns," said member Loretta Gragnani. I am also very concerned about steep slopes. Testimony has been given that water will be circulated back in, but these homes on Rocky Ridge have well water. I'm not sure if the blasting is going to have an effect on these homes. I'm leaning towards a no."
Member Steve Dickens was also inclined to oppose the idea.
"My biggest concern is that the applicant has made claims there is a need for this type of housing in our township and that it meets criteria for positive proofs and outweighs negative impact. I'm not sure," he said. "I think it will have a large impact to the surrounding neighborhoods and families that have been there 20, 30, 40, 50 years."
ZBA Chairman Robert Iracane said he was surprised by the board's opposition.
"Do you really think people are going to build on two-acre lots?" he asked Kelley. "Cluster houses are the way of the future."
Iracane said construction issues should not be the board's concern.
"If we approve this, proper authorities deal with the blasting and building code issues. We could worry about a herd of dolphins going through. What matters is, is this a viable project and can it work?
"We've already got a huge townhouse development next door. This is not virgin territory, it's viable land and the applicant is asking for 2.4 units to an acre. I don't think it's terribly unreasonable," the chairman continued. "I've been on this board almost 23 years. I've seen and voted for a lot of applications. I can think of two i regret voting for.
"I want you guys to think about the townhouse complex on Reynolds Avenue that's next to a nursing home. We had hours and hours of testimony. Now if you drive down there and look at that beautiful development, it fits and it fits perfectly. It's a beautiful asset to the community."
"In my opinion this is not a bad application, and I've seen a lot," Iracane concluded.
Brian Kelley was not moved.
"I don't think it's a bad application, but these people moved [to the Mountain Way area] for two-acre lots," he said.
The 4-3 vote came down against the developer, with Dickens, Gragnani, Kelley and Pathak voting no.
Mountain Way residents in the audience appeared stunned but jubilant in victory.
"I applaud the board's diligence and sober-mindedness with which they considered this application," said Thuen, who said he expects other developers and "smart businessmen" to propose something similar in future. "We'll just continue the conversation if we have to."
"This is a real affirmation of the residents," said Cordtz, who is part of Preserve Mountain Way. "Their lawyer almost berated us for not being experts or having thousands of dollars to go up against them. They looked down their noses at us through this whole project."
In the end, the little guys won.
Rick Jilleba, founder of Preserve Mountain Way, told Patch he doesn't believe this is over.
"[Developer Edward] Mosberg will be back with another plan and we will wait to see what it is," he said. "For now, my group is done. We can feel good about what we have prevented, but most of all we feel good about what we have maintained: our neighborhood."
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