The Hopewell Borough Planning Board reconvened hearing plans for the redevelopment of the Model Avenue lumberyard to townhomes at its June 1 meeting. The Planning Board agenda specified that the application is for “Preliminary and Final Site Plan for 13 residential townhouses with garages on ground floor and 2 ½ story townhouse space above.” The applicant’s attorney, Matthew R. Flynn, began the meeting with a strong plea for the Board to approve the redevelopment, arguing that the applicant had satisfied all of the goals set forth in accordance with the town’s documented standards. 

According to Flynn, the applicant had essentially provided all of the testimony necessary at the April 6 Planning Board meeting, and that there was no good reason to delay approval. The redevelopment met the goals of being aesthetically pleasing, marketable, high quality, and includes two affordable housing units. 

Flynn stated that the redevelopment has the approval of the fire marshal, water and garbage has been worked out since the April meeting, and the applicant’s engineer agreed to all of the Borough planner’s suggestions. 

“We are prepared to rest on the five witnesses who gave testimony in April,” Flynn said. 

Henry “Hank” Wittman III, applicant and sole owner of the lumberyard, testified that he met with the Hopewell Borough Historic Preservation Commission. “I scheduled a meeting with the historical society….They asked if I would change the units’ style. I said [that] I would not. They said that I was wasting their time.”

Wittman said that he met with the Commission a second time, and asked for their suggestions in writing. Out of the suggestions listed, the applicant decided that the most reasonable accommodation was to relocate the landscaping walls, bringing the grades forward without a wall. Some of the other suggestions, like reducing the size of the development by one unit, were not something the Wittman felt was plausible. 

“I don’t think this is attractive, but I can live with this staircase up the lawn,” said Wittman.

Flynn said that a change in front of one unit should not constitute the need for a submission of new site plans, and that the changes could be worked out with engineers after approval. 

“I’m really uncomfortable circumventing this whole process,” said Board Chair Peter Macholdt.

“We do not view this in any way as circumventing the process. My client has been pushed out the door twice,” Flynn responded.

Joanna Slagle, Borough Planner, pointed out that the Board was being asked to vote on something that it cannot see, and noted that modifying the walkways might tip the impervious coverage over 50%. She said it would need to be determined if the changes stay within the limit or compromise the aesthetic. 

“I don’t see this as a minor change,” said Board member David Mackie.

“We are absolutely in favor of this project; we just want to get it right,” said Macholdt. 

The Board called Alison Baxter, Chair of the Historic Commission, to testify about the proposed changes. “Mr. Wittman came to the meeting with nothing. We made a number of suggestions that were not just about grading but the building itself. We have not seen anything. The principle of this is something that we suggested, but we don’t know what it is going to look like.”

Baxter asked that the applicant come to the HPC’s June 21 meeting with full drawings, and noted that the Commission wanted to see how the porches reach the ground level. 

The applicant agreed to carry the hearing over to the July 6 meeting to give proper time for site plan revisions and meetings with HPC, but asked if special sessions could be convened with the HPC if necessary to make sure that the project was satisfactory before the July Planning Board meeting. 

Baxter said that she could request special sessions, but the HPC members are volunteers and may not have the availability to attend a special session in the summer. Therefore, a special session could not be promised if all the details could not be worked out at the July 21 meeting. 

The Board moved on to discussing an ordinance that needed attention as part of the revision of the masterplan that is currently underway. Slagle suggested rewording a zoning ordinance on the books that limits storefronts to 2,000 square feet. She said it was written in the early 1990’s at a time when many municipalities sought to limit the construction of big box stores. However, existing buildings in the Business-Residential Zone exceed the 2,000 square feet limit, requiring new owners to apply for a variance. 

Slagle suggested cleaning up the language to make it applicable only to new construction and not penalize existing structures. She said that every variance to the 2,000 square feet limit had been applied for by a business operating out of an existing structure. The ordinance is based on floor area, and Slagle said it is also difficult to interpret if it includes shared spaces or dedicated spaces. 

Mackie said that the intent of the zoning may have been to “encourage a larger number of smaller businesses as opposed to larger businesses,” 

Boardmember Ryan Kennedy suggested that the Board revise it as a bulk variance. 

Macholdt pointed out that the Board had never denied a variance for a business exceeding 2,000 square feet in an existing building. 

The Board agreed to look into rewording the ordinance in a way that allows them to keep the oversight without penalizing applicants moving into existing spaces larger than 2,000 square feet.

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