Dennis Handel has failed for a second time to win approval of his plans for a mixed-used building at 176-200 Bloomfield Avenue.
In a vote just before midnight after 12 months of hearings, the Verona Planning Board declined to approve two of the six variances that Handel needed. The vote came after almost five hours of closing arguments by lawyers and statements by 19 Verona residents. No one in the standing-room only crowd, which numbered close to 100 people, spoke in favor of the project, though several said they would be open to considering a development plan that was less intrusive to the site and its surrounding neighborhood.
Verona Township Engineer Jim Helb voted to approve all six variances and repeatedly tried to convince the diminished Board, which was missing four of its regular members, to do the same. “We have a stronger ability to impose standards and conditions under an application such as this than an as-of-right application,” Helb said. In March, Handel’s representatives showed a “concept plan” for a larger building that it contended could be developed without any variances. But Handel never switched his application to reflect that plan and several Board members indicated last night that they were basing their votes solely on what was before them and not the prospect of any alternative, which some opponents have called a “threat” plan. “Most people here understand that to develop that site they will need variances,” said Michael Foley, an alternate to the Board who was voting because regular members were absent.
Foley voted against approving any of the variances, as did Town Councilman Kevin Ryan. “We are trying to put an end to it,” Ryan said reference to Handel’s attempt to get more parking in front of the building than Verona’s new zoning allows. “We don’t want Bloomfield Avenue to look like Route 46.”
Planning Board Chairman William Brown voted to approve all of the variances, as did Victor Lugo, alternate #1 to the Board. Jennifer Critchley, a regular Board member, was the deciding factor in Handel’s loss as she voted against the variances to permit parking in the so-called minimum front yard and to permit paving in the required front yard. Critchley, who is a lawyer in private practice, asked Board attorney Greg Mascera for guidance in interpreting the law governing the board’s decision. “I am having a serious internal conflict,” she said. Board Secretary James Kirby was absent last night, as were regular members Melissa Collins and Lawrence Lonergan, and Paul Mathewson, who sits on the Board as the mayor’s designee. Another regular Board member, Tom Freeman, was also not present. He recused himself from the Planning Board discussions from the beginning last August because his office is in a building just east of the proposed development site.
Handel has faced a wall of public opposition to his development plans since he first presented them to the Verona Board of Adjustment in June 2012, and last night was no exception. Nineteen Verona residents–from neighboring streets and other areas of town–delivered statements against the project. Many again worried about the noise and disruption that might occur from the blasting Handel would need to do to level the steeply wooded lots. Planning Board members acknowledged their concerns, but, as had the Board of Adjustment, noted that blasting was not something that they could regulate. The Board of Adjustment killed the first version of the project in March 2013 after voting against a variance that would have allowed Handel’s building to be 70% residential and 30% commercial and not the 50-50 split required by Verona’s zoning ordinance.
That ordinance, which the Town Council approved in 2011 after a five-year-long effort to draft a new Master Plan, weighed heavily in several of the statements. Herb Lev, a Summit Road resident, said that DMH2’s plan “displays a blatant disregard for its surroundings, the townscape and the core of the zoning code that was approved three years ago.” “The site,” he continued, “is an insult to the vision set forth in the zoning ordinance. The applicant’s proposal is unworthy of a place in the revitalization of the eastern end of Verona.”
Beth Shorten, a Montclair Avenue resident, evoked both Verona’s past and its future in her statement, noting that her family has lived here even before the town was Verona. “What is the long-reaching implication,” she asked of the plan. “Will your approval benefit Verona in five years, 10 years, in decades to come? Take the time to think about everything that you have heard in these months. You will be shaping the landscape of this town. You will be acting as the custodian of its future.”
Tim Camuti, who has lived in Verona for 15 years, challenged Handel to come up with a better plan. “I have nothing against the applicant,” Camuti said. “If he had purchased one of the already flattened lots or a vacant property there would be five people here instead of 50.” “People want to see the right thing happen,” he added, before turning at the microphone to face Handel. “We want to preserve the physical landscape and the community. Be a good neighbor and build something we can all live with.”
Jessica Pearson and Jack McEvoy, who have led the opposition to the project from the beginning, again delivered lengthy statements against it. “His design choices have caused his own need for variances,” said Pearson of Handel. “Something better can be done on this site,” she added. “Our code is clear: No parking in the front yard, and no loading in the front yard.” (Only Ryan and Foley voted to deny the variance to permit loading in the front yard.) While variances can be granted to alleviate difficult conditions on a site, McEvoy repeated the assertion that Handel’s hardships were of his own making. And he cautioned the Board that, while it could impose conditions on the site as part of its approval, conditions “are not easily enforced.” The Board did later put a long list of conditions on the site, but they were rendered moot because the variances were not approved.
John R. Dusinberre, a lawyer representing Montclair Avenue residents Lars and Kathy Sternas, asked the Board to consider the intent of Verona’s zoning ordinance as it made its decisions. “He is asking you to approve those very things that your new ordinance is trying to change,” Dusinberre said of Handel. “To approve this applications you are asking yourselves to approve that which was expressly intended to change.” But Alan Trembulak, the lawyer representing Handel, attempted to assert that the variances Handel sought would make the project more like the properties nearby. “I think that the plan that we have presented is a reasonable plan,” Trembulak said, “which is consistent with your zoning ordinance.”
What happens next is unclear. Handel could attempt to go ahead with the concept plan, which his lawyer raised again in his closing statement. He could file suit to challenge the Planning Board’s decision. Or he could sell the properties and move on. This reporter approached Handel after the vote and asked what he planned to do. “Take a walk asshole,” Handel snapped. “Write that down in your biased report.”