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Woman's Club Buyer Gets Use Variance, Sale Moves Forward

The variance was granted by the Zoning Board of Adjustment contingent upon submission of a valet parking plan that excludes the use of on-street parking spaces.

After nearly four hours of expert testimony, questions, public comment, board discussion and some pretty detailed conversations about decibel levels and parking, the Maplewood Zoning Board of Adjustment granted a variance for continuation of a non-conforming use for 60 Woodland Road — the Woman's Club building.

The approval of the use variance and site plan for the applicant — Lamona LLC — allows the sale of the building by the Woman's Club of Maplewood to Lamona to move forward. Tom Kerns of Lamona LLC had previously said that the sale was contingent upon the approval of the variance.

But before the approval was given, much time and many words were expended on two main topics: parking (including traffic and circulation) and noise.

The building as currently owned by the Woman's Club of Maplewood was a rather sleepy enterprise for many years. But in the last three years, according to neighbors on Woodland Road, the club has increased the number of events and programs renting the facility. (The club was recently embroiled and agreed to make payments in lieu of taxes.)

Woodland and Inwood Road neighbors to complain of noise and traffic related to events at the building.

To counter their concerns, Tom Kerns — who formed Lamona in order to buy the building — started Wednesday night's meeting by saying that he would offer certain concessions. The self-imposed conditions stipulated that the building would have no amplified music after 11 p.m. Sundays through Thursdays, and no amplified music after 12 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays. Kerns asked for "limited exceptions" including a 1 a.m. amplified music curfew for New Year's Eve and a 12 a.m. music curfew for five other dates to be named (for events related to St. Patrick's Day or the Academy Awards, for example).

Kerns also shared a resolution by the Mapelwood Township Committee stating that the governing body viewed Kerns' plans for the Woman's Club favorably and would work with Kerns and the neighborhood to "accommodate" parking needs, including a possible rental arrangement for parking spaces at the Township-owned on Durand Road.

Sharon L. Weiner, an attorney, and Sean Moronski, a certified planner, both questioned whether such a resolution from the governing body had any binding effect on the Town to act. The resolution showed intent but could not be counted on to resolve parking issues, said Weiner and Moronski, who were hired by Woodland Road neighbors to represent their interests at the meeting.

Later an acoustical consultant hired by Kerns testified that, although sound generated inside the building could reach levels above state standards, improvements to the building could be made to significantly improve the levels. The sound engineer, Robert Schmidt, said, "It's relatively straightforward to make this building meet or exceed state standards." He recommended measures such as laminated insulated glass for windows, sound seals for doors, and interior acoustic materials to be placed above the ceiling.

But Schmidt's claims that sounds levels at the property line reached levels only slightly above state standards even with the sound "ramped up" and doors open, drew guffaws from residents in attendance. ZBA Chair Larry Seltzer mentioned to Schmidt that residents had testified at the June meeting that their houses vibrated with sound from Woman's Club events. Schmidt said that levels produced in the building were "nowhere near that — unless the windows were loose."

"You're wrong," retorted one resident.

"Get outta here," said another.

Ultimately Moronski argued that Lamona did not meet the standards of "particular suitability" necessary for a D1 use variance. Moronski said that the proposal did not fill a need in the community that other areas could not fulfill, that other viable locations were available for the proposed activities, and that the property was not particularly well suited for the use. Overall, Moronski said, the positives of the proposal did not outweigh the negatives which included noise and parking problems.

Kerns attorney, John Stolz, and his planner, Richard Keller, countered that the proposal was not a purely new use and that Kerns was not proposing to intensify use of the site. "There are not limits on the Woman's Club currently," said Keller.

With regard to "particular suitability," Keller said that the building was unique in Maplewood with its 2,500 sf auditorium and its description in the Master Plan as a "quasi-public space." He also noted that the proposal was an opportunity to save an historic structure (a characteristic testified to by representatives of the Historic Preservation Commission and Durand-Hedden House).

Resident Ernie Borsolino suggested during public comment that Kerns be granted the right to operate a club but not a catering business. "Let's have a theater, community events, the tasting," he said. "What everybody's against is the catering hall. Make it a club."

When it came time for the Board to deliberate, members stated that they felt confident that Kerns' plans to improve soundproofing would be sufficient to meet state standards and appease neighbors.

With regard to parking, the Board members adopted a suggestion made by commenter Jim Nathanson that the variance be granted contingent upon submission of a valet parking plan that did not include the use of on-street parking spaces.

Finally, Chair Larry Seltzer said he felt that Kerns' proposal was an opportunity to create a better situation and rectify existing concerns about noise, parking and maintenance.

The variance and site plan were approved unanimously.

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