In a dramatic decision after midnight, the Verona Board of Adjustment unanimously voted against a key variance needed for the proposed mixed-used development at 176 and 200 Bloomfield Avenue, effectively killing the project in its current form.
The project’s developer, DMH2 LLC of Sparta, had been before the board since last June, seeking approval of one so-called D variance and four C variances. The D variance was needed because the proposed building was to be 70% residential and 30% commercial, while Verona’s current zoning requires a 50-50 split.
Over the last 10 months, many residents of the streets bordering the project had banded together to oppose it, mounting a vocal campaign against the blasting and excavation that would need to be done to prepare the steeply wooded lots for construction. They questioned the 26-foot-high retaining walls that would have been needed in some sections of the project and the traffic that it would bring to the area. But none of that was, in the end, what swayed the board: The plan was simply not in keeping with the master zoning plan that Verona adopted in 2010.
“I don’t think the plan comes nearly close enough for me to say a 70-30 split is OK,” said board member Lawrence Lundy during the deliberations. Lundy took pains to point out that, as proposed, the plan was skewed toward a type of usage that the master plan seemed to expressly rule out: residential. The two lots fall in the Extended Town Center zone created by the new master plan, which favors commercial and mixed-used projects. While Verona has apartment and condominium complexes on other stretches of Bloomfield Avenue, there cannot be a residential-only project in the new zone.
Alan Trembulak, the lawyer for the developer, had tried to argue over the last 10 months–and again last night in his summation–that the large residential component made for a better project. The plan was for 14 two-bedroom rental apartments that faced away from Bloomfield Avenue towards Montclair Avenue over the commercial space. “We think that more residential is better than more retail for this site,” Trembulak said in his closing. “If you accept the neighbors’ argument, they want more residential.”
A super-majority of five of seven board members was needed to approve or deny the D variance, and as the board deliberated, opponents where visibly counting which way the votes might fall. But they were clearly stunned that all seven members in attendance–Lundy, Chairman John Denton, Vice Chairman Dan McGinley, Sean Sullivan, Michael Zichelli, Patrick Liska and Coleen D’Alessandro–voted unanimously against the D variance.
Despite the vote, the project may not be dead. The developer could appeal, come back before the board with an alternative, or simply draft a conforming plan that requires no major variances. Denton cautioned during his remarks that any plan for the site would likely involve excavation and blasting, which does not fall within the board’s jurisdiction. “We can’t judge what that might come before us,” he said. “[The current plan] maximizes the use of the property, and there is nothing wrong with that, but it does so through the deviation.”