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Planning Board Approves 125 Dunnell Site Plan

Final site plan approval was granted to a plan for a 50-unit rental apartment building — after significant discussion.

The Maplewood Planning Board approved a site plan application by JERC Partners XVII, LLC tonight for the development of 125 Dunnell Road — the former location of the Maplewood police station — as a 50-unit apartment building.

The application was approved with one condition: the creation of a non-binding advisory committee to work with the applicant on material selection and color selection for the facade of the new building.

The Board held a lengthy discussion on whether or not such a committee could or could not be binding, or should or should not be binding. If the committee was binding and the site plan was approved, Board Counsel Michael Edelson noted that the applicant would have grounds to legally challenge the creation of the committee since the Redevelopment Plan for the site designated the Planning Board as the final authority on plan approval.

If the Board decided to designate a committee and not approve the site plan, the Town's contract with the developer would be in jeopardy — per the contract, site plan approval needed to be accomplished by March 7. With a second meeting needed to memorialize an approval and a 45-day period necessary for any legal challenges before the approval was binding, the Dec. 13 Planning Board meeting was the last chance to approve the site plan and meet the deadline.

However, during public testimony, John James of the Maplewood Village Alliance said that the Alliance had a "few concerns" about the site plan. James said that the Alliance applauded the flexibility of the applicant and the changes made to the proposal over the course of several meetings. But he still had questions about materials to be used and color selection, the metal grates to be used for the garage doors, as well as the fact that not all the architectural drawings were consistent with each other.

After more than a half hour of deliberation over how to resolve issues related to the facade, Mayor Vic DeLuca addressed the Planning Board members: "What problem are we trying to solve? No one came up and testified against this."

DeLuca added, "I could live with what was decided. I'm willing to support the Chair's recommendation to create a committee, but they've met the criteria of the redevelopment agreement."

Prior to deliberations, experts testifying on behalf of the applicant addressed some outstanding issues, most notably landscaping and the disposal of trees to create a retaining wall for the back parking lot for the building. David Wisotsky, engineer for JERC, noted that 11 trees would be removed: with the help of town arborist Todd Lamm, the applicant's landscaper determined that one tree was dead, two in bad condition, three were invasive, two were in "average" condition, and three were in good condition. The trees were all over 4" in diameter at 4' above the ground. Seven new trees would be planted at the top of the hill where seven existing trees would be retained, said Wisotsky. A 36" caliper tulip tree lower down on the slope would be spared and the retaining wall worked around it.

The applicant's experts also answered all the concerns previously outlined by Planning Board Engineering Consultant Bob Bratt in a memo, including finding more suitable light sconces for the front of the building exterior and removing a drop-off/loading zone in front of the building.

Concerned citizens who had previously raised concerns about the project were in attendance but did not protest the approval of the site plan. During a break before deliberations, Rick Wessler told Patch, "I think the developer and the initial design have come a long way to accommodate the public. I still have concerns about height and bulk and impact to the historic park, and I hope it will be somewhat mitigated by the design review subcommittee."

Dave Helmkamp noted, "The biggest problems were decided two years ago."

Ultimately, the Planning Board decided to create the non-binding advisory committee. "My preference is to have a design team overview, but I'm not interested in delaying the project," said Board Chair Tom Carlson. Carlson and others on the Planning Board said that they accepted the statement by the applicant's attorney that the applicant would act in good faith and work to accommodate the recommendations of an advisory committee.

The site plan gained approval by a vote of 8 to 1 (with John Branigan dissenting). Carlson appointed Branigan, John James, Planning Board Alternate Tammy Haynie and Town Engineer Tom Malavasi to the advisory committee.

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