Dennis Handel, the developer looking to put a mixed commercial and residential building on two lots next to Everett Field, was back before the Verona Planning Board on Thursday night. It is Handel’s third try at winning approval for the project and he returned with an expanded team of legal and development help. Also back was Jack Dusinberre, the lawyer for a Montclair Avenue couple whose house abuts the Handel properties, as well as Jack McEvoy and Jessica Pearson, the Montclair Avenue couple who have been leading the opposition to the development. What was missing? Civility and good manners, at least in the opening minutes of the evening.
Handel’s company, DMH2 LLC, has twice been turned down by Verona zoning authorities. The new application, however, must proceed as if nothing had ever been said about the project, which means that both Handel’s team and his objectors must put a lot of material on the record all over again. But when McEvoy and Pearson tried to do just that in their opening statements–noting that Handel’s application indicated there was no deed restriction on the property (past testimony has shown that there is)–Planning Board attorney Greg Mascera summarily dismissed it and another legal point that Pearson made as “immaterial”. Mascera also openly mocked McEvoy’s letter to the Board as the work of a “ghostwriter” (it had in fact been drafted and co-signed by Pearson). When a member of the public loudly objected to Mascera’s treatment of Pearson and McEvoy, Mascera threatened to call the police and said, “we’re not going to go through these shenanigans.”
The attorney was much more civil to fellow attorney Dusinberre, who is representing Lars and Kathy Sternas of 16 Montclair Avenue. When Dusinberre made his opening statement, he too made points that he had made before. But he also raised two new issues: The back corner of the 176 Bloomfield Avenue lot (DMH2’s development will also cover 200 Bloomfield Avenue) abuts the driveway to a two-family house used by ARC of Essex County as a residence for adults with developmental disabilities. As such, there should be a 15-foot wooded buffer on the 200 Bloomfield lot instead of paving, under Verona code.
Dusinberre also asserted that because 200 Bloomfield Avenue is a corner lot, under Verona zoning the setback should be 30 feet from the house at the bottom of Westview Road not the 20 feet provided for in the DMH2 plan. Both this issue, and the buffer by the ARC house, should require variances, Dusinberre said. DMH2 has presented the new plan as being completely conforming with Verona code and needing no variances.
“I think this is not a variance-free application,” said Dusinberre. “I do not think that we should all embark on this case thinking that it is just a run-through.” And he dangled the possibility of more questions to come. “I’m not sure that that’s all the variances that will reveal themselves,” Dusinberre added. The lawyer also requested a statement from DMH2 of all individuals who own 10% or more of the project. This so-called beneficial ownership statement can indicate who might have a financial interest in a property even though the title to it is held by someone else; it should have been filed with the application to the Planning Board, even if, as with the deed certification, it is not an issue on which the Board can pass judgement.
When it was finally time for the DMH2 side to speak, the microphone was handed over to J. Michael Petry, who has testified for Handel on both of the previous two applications. The polished Petry moved swiftly through his testimony, using his remarks to deflect questions raised about the project before. While still insisting that the trees on the heavily wooded lot were “primarily along the perimeter of the property”, Petry asserted that the pipes and catch basins in the new plan would do a better job of handling stormwater runoff than the site does in its current state. He also gave a more substantial list of new plants and shrubs for the property, which he said would replace “the missing deciduous trees.” They include field maple, purple osier willow and William Penn barberry, none of which are native to our area. Verona code mandates the planting of “native vegetation” as a non-structural stormwater management technique.
Petry also made a point of noting that the site plan before the Board was modeled on the largest fire truck in the Verona fire department and that he had spoken with Verona’s Emergency Management director, Jeff Hayes, who told him that he was “not concerned in the least” about how a fire truck would fit on the site because the fire department would fight any fire at the new building from the front. Interestingly, the first plan submitted for this round in September was drafted with a shorter fire truck. In early October, McEvoy requested information on the length of Verona’s longest fire truck and was directed to file an Open Public Records Act (OPRA) request. He did, but has still not received the information even though the OPRA law mandates a response in seven business days. The DMH2 plan was amended before the Thursday hearing to show a larger truck.
There will be more testimony from DMH2 and the opponents, but not until December 4, the Board’s next regular session. There will be two special sessions of the Board in November: The first, on November 12, for the courtesy review of the Board of Education’s plan to renovate the lower football field and the second, on November 20, to determine whether the former Brunner auto dealership site should be declared an area in need of redevelopment.