About 50 Intervale area residents greeted the Parsippany Planning Board Monday night to hear testimony on a plan to bring Whole Foods Market to town—and to speak out against it.
Many in the township cheered in late July, when . But when word came that the deal would involve putting up a new 26-acre development on Waterview Plaza on Route 46 across from the Parsippany Police headquarters, residents of the Intervale area cried foul.
The developer's idea is to construct a mixed-use facility that would include the high-end supermarket, other retailers and a residential component featuring 72 upscale three-story townhouses. The land being considered for use is the last undeveloped 26 acres of the 132-acre plot that stands between Route 46 and Intervale Road and borders residences on Intervale and single-family houses on Forest Drive.
According to Board Planner Edward Snieckus of Burgis Associates, this is not a concept plan."This is more than that," he said. "They are requesting recommendations of this board regarding uses [and making the area an] overlay zone" that would allow retail and residential units on a portion of land currently zoned for office development.
However, Snieckus recommended centering discussion for the night on the concept and whether it fits into the township's Master Plan, in that the Planning Board can neither approve nor reject the idea, but can only make a recommendation to the Town Council, which ultimately will make the final decision regarding the application.
The Waterview property is a controversial one: In the past, due to strong negative reaction from nearby residents, plans for an office development in the 1980s and a 2006 residential project have been killed.
Snieckus said RD Realty LLC is attached to the application to bring the retail/residential complex to Parsippany.
Attorney Joseph O'Neill, representing RD Realty, presented two witnesses in a gathering that lasted until 11 p.m.
First was licensed planner and landscape architect John McDonough, who attempted to make a case for the project.
"We have a distinct lack of grocery land use, particularly [of] the specialty grocer the developer wants to bring here," he said. "It's distinctly different than the Pathmark, which has a larger facility and a different product mix.
McDonough noted that the land is not constrained by wetlands, and that there would be little environmental impact.
Additionally, he said the commercial office market is suffering.
"We're seeing 40 percent vacancy rates for office buildings," he said. "And we're dealing with an area not zoned to be a park."
By ordinance, Waterview Plaza must be used to attract income-producing rateables.
McDonough argued that the project was compatible with the Master Plan and was not spot zoning.
"More than one landowner is benefitted. There is a community benefit here," McDonough testified, noting that it would put a more than $1 million rateable "over stagnant land that exists now" and would bring more than $1 million in fees to the township.
The planner said that Parsippany suffers from a glut of office buildings and achieve more balance. He added that the retail market for townhouses is strong and that the residential component of the project is in keeping with the Master Plan's call for a variety of residential land uses.
"We see townhouses in Parsippany account for 6.1 percent of residential availability," he explained. "In surrounding areas, it's 16.1 percent. That's an indicator of demand for townhouses in Parsippany."
McDonough added that the area has "excellent accessibility" in terms of vehicle traffic, that it was well buffered around its perimeter and that the residential density proposed, 12 units per acre, was "on par with Intervale Gardens."
Residents were not buying, and several on the dais voiced their concerns.
Town Council member Michael dePierro noted that residents are concerned with use of Forest Drive by motorists trying to get to Interstate 287.
"I want traffic away from Forest Drive," he said, earning a round of applause.
Board member Thomas Dinsmore echoed the councilman's worry.
"Circulation of large numbers of people into the current traffic pattern is one that has to be very carefully weighed."
Board member Robert Keller spoke out against the height proposed for the townhouses, which under the current plan would stand three stories—approximately 40 feet—high.
"Why do you need the extra height?" he asked.
Keller also asked whether there is adequate water supply for the development of the site?
Mayor James Barberio replied.
"Yes we do, and sewer as well," the mayor said, offering to have the township's director of water utility write a report on the matter.
Resident Nancy Choffo took issue with Barberio's statement.
"We're under water restrictions," she said. "How can we afford to add more residents?"
"We have plenty of water," insisted Barberio, adding that a study by the water utility director shows that the water supply is sufficient.
Choffo then asked about the impact the residential plan would have on area schools, citing overcrowding at a number of schools in town. The mayor said the issue would be addressed. Then the resident addressed McDonough's earlier claim regarding effects on the surrounding environment.
"This would be taking land away from the animals who live there, so to say there is no environmental impact... there is an impact," she said.
Resident Angela Piegari also spoke against McDonough's assertion that because the plan benefits the community it isn't spot zoning.
"The community directly affected may not agree that we benefit," she said. "I consider another strip mall development with additional housing, more traffic, lighting, the possibility of crime and higher taxes."
Then Piegari offered a sentiment shared with Patch by many Intervale residents.
"Such a store as Whole Foods might be better addressed by the empty stores that already exist at the old Michael's [in the Morris Hills Shopping Center] and the old [Route 46] Walgreens. ... Has the concept developer ever considered the two vacant stores in the strip malls that already exist?"
McDonough replied, noting that the retailer has specific demands.
"When we talk about Whole Foods, we're dealing with a retailer that wants to be in a special location. It does not want to be with retailers that [are perceived to be lower-end]. ... This is very high-end look for this particular product.
"It's anything but a strip."
"I'm not convinced," Piegari said.
Resident John Gribben took issue with the whole project.
"Many residents disagree that there is benefit to the greater good," he said, his neighbors muttering agreement throughout Council Chambers.
McDonough argued that the Master Plan, created in 2004 and due to be re-evaluated and perhaps revised next year, is out of sync with the present time and changing circumstances. He added that residents would be protected with the installation of a 50-foot buffer of trees around the property's perimeter, which he said is appropriate from a landscape standpoint.
The audience howled its reaction: "No."
Resident Andrew Choffo followed up with another environmental concern.
"We're taking an awful lot of ground that could absorb water and trees that could absorb water," he said.
Another resident, David Kaplan, noted that the last developer who tried to build a project on Waterview Plaza offered a 400-foot buffer.
"Four hundred feet was still concerning to us," said Kaplan. "We have no interest in supporting any zoning change. We bought under certain conditions knowing it was zoned for office. It's not our fault it wasn't developed. Our conditions have not changed. We expect the zoning to stay the same so our quality of life is not impacted."
Resident Russell Arnold referred to a previous Planning Board discussion regarding installing solar panels at the Parsippany Free Public Library on Halsey Road.
"I was struck by the library's concern for light under a carport, while this project's gonna light up the entire neighborhood," he said. "They're concerned about 14 trees at the library. How many trees are going to get pulled down here?"
Chairperson Parikh repeatedly admonished residents for hurling comments and opinions rather than questions. Still, the complaints kept coming as residents continued to vent their displeasure with the proposal and raise issues regarding matters including school overcrowding, building when empty retail space is going unused, whether the town could purchase the land and keep it as a park or open space and whether the town really needs a Whole Foods Market when a Kings Supermarket exists in nearby Florham Park.
After some testimony regarding traffic use and circulation from a second witness, engineer and planner John Meyer—including Meyer's statement that there already is a signed lease for the property, which was all he was "at liberty to say"—Chairperson Parikh called for adjournment.
Patch asked resident Liz Lynch, another opponent of the project, whether she believed her neighbors would ever accept any development on Waterview Plaza. Lynch was quick and direct in answering: "No."
The matter will come up again Dec. 3, when the Whole Foods project will be the only agenda item.