The vote was five to four, with Planning Board Chairman William Brown and members Larry Lonergan, Melissa Collins and Victor Lugo voting in its favor. Verona Township Engineer Jim Helb also voted to approve, though his status as a voting member was challenged by the lawyer for the opponents. Kevin Ryan, who has been sitting on the Planning Board as the Town Council representative, voted against the project, as did mayoral designee Paul Mathewson and Board members Jim Kirby and Jennifer Critchley. Michael Foley spoke against approval but was not allowed to vote because he is an alternate to the Board and enough regular members were present.
Dennis Handel, the prospective developer, had previously been turned down twice by Verona zoning authorities. His company, DMH2, began the latest application last October with a plan that it asserted is completely conforming with Verona code and needing no variances. The Planning Board debated variances in the ensuing testimony, but did not require any although they did impose a long list of conditions.
More than three dozen people turned out for the hearing, and many of them spoke against it, citing its potential impact on the older homes in the neighborhood, traffic, health, the environment and safety, and repeatedly imploring the Board to “do the right thing”.
“Everything about this project is intrusive and invasive, said Ethan Barshay, a Westview Road resident. “Everything about this project,” he added, “goes against the character of Verona.”
No one in the audience spoke in favor of the project, which will remove almost all the trees on the properties and excavate the bulk of the soil and rock that is now there. The building that will be put on the site will have commercial use on the ground floor, but the second floor will be split between residential apartments and commercial use.
Before voting, Ryan said the deliberations over the Handel plan “have pointed out some of the flaws in our ordinances with regard to the Master Plan.” He added that he would recommend that the Town Council reviews Master Plan and the zoning ordinances that we created from it.
Even with the approval, Handel will not be able to immediately begin work. After the vote is memorialized at the next Planning Board meeting, there is a 45-day window for appeals to the decision to be filed. Based on testimony introduced by the opponents, it seems highly likely that appeals will be made.