After another lengthy meeting filled with expert testimony, the Maplewood Zoning Board of Adjustment has decided to hold a special meeting on May 16 to hear public comments, hold deliberation and rule on a variance regarding a proposed convenience store addition to the gas station at Parker Avenue and Valley Street.
The ZBA made the decision after testimony from traffic engineers both for and against the proposal took up most of the three-and-a-half-hour meeting that ended at 11:30 p.m. on Monday, May 2. Testimony regarding the requested variance has occupied much of the ZBA's meeting time this year. (The ZBA meets on the first Monday or every month at 8 p.m. at Town Hall.)
Residents opposed to the proposed convenience store were frustrated at the ZBA's March 7 meeting when expert planning and engineering testimony on behalf of the applicant left no time for public comment. Hearings on the variance were continued to May 2 due to the illness of one of the expert witnesses scheduled to testify on April 4.
However, Board member Robert Marchman assured all community members that they would be heard before any decision on whether or not to allow a second use at the gas station site was made.
Their chance will come on May 16, according to Board Chair Larry Seltzer who said there would be no expert testimony at that meeting — only public comment, deliberation and a ruling.
Seltzer noted that, according to State rules governing the ZBA, public commentary can not be heard until all expert testimony on an application has been heard. Members of the public did, however, have the opportunity to question experts specifically on their testimony.
Site owner Ali Enterprise, LLC has requested a variance to construct a 1,800 S. F. in conjunction with site improvements to an existing gas station at 494 Valley Street (Block 24.04, Lot 122) across the street from Columbia High School.
Elizabeth McKenzie, certified planner retained by Ali Enterprises, gave her justifications for the granting of the variances at the March 7 meeting. She noted that Maplewood code requires a 10,000 sf lot for service stations and a 5,000 sf lot for convenience stores. At 18,000 sf, McKenzie said that the current location would be more than adequate for both uses if it were subdivided.
McKenzie noted that the service station is the conditional use for the site (the lot is actually one foot too shallow to meet the town's 100-foot depth standard for service stations). She said that both service stations and convenience stores are allowed by the current NB — or neighborhood business — zoning for the lot.
McKenzie said that a variance must be granted if the applicant can show no substantial impairment to the public good.
Experts for the applicant have testified that the applicant has made numerous adjustments to the site plan to accommodate requests, including those made at a Jan. 19 meeting with representation of the South Orange-Maplewood Board of Education. The changes include:
- Creating a raised sidewalk at the east side of the property in order to ensure safer passage to the convenience store for high school students.
- Installing cameras in the front and back of the new store and hardwiring the cameras to the police station.
- Placing motion lights would be placed in the back of the property that could be adjusted so as not to react to animal activity — such as invading raccoons.
- A chain link fence in back to ensure no loitering behind the building, posting no loitering signs
- hiring a guard to patrol from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. on school days to ensure the students used the sidewalk and did not loiter
Experts assured the board that decibel levels would be kept low, the canopy columns would be faced in brick, signage would be minimized, low brick walls would be replaced with plantings, certain curb cuts could be designated for vehicle entrance and exit only to control traffic flow, and additional trash cans would be added to the site plan.
Elizabeth Dolan, of Dolan & Dean Consulting Engineers, testified on behalf of Ali Enterprises at the May 2 meeting.
However, a group of local residents remain convinced that the addition of the convenience store would be detrimental to the neighborhood, and hired their own traffic expert, Louis Luglio, P.E., President of L2 Group. LLC., who studied the proposal and testified before the Zoning Board on their behalf at the May 2 meeting.
Resident John Davenport reported that Luglio "was emphatic that the improvements that the Shell station proposed making to the traffic lights and sidewalks will not compensate for all the added congestion of more vehicles and foot traffic coming into the station if a 7-11 is added there."
Residents are also circulating a petition against the variance. See the petition here.
Also at the May 2 meeting, Beth Daugherty, President of the South Orange-Maplewood Board of Education, presented a letter on behalf of the Board. Although the applicant had addressed many of the concerns stated in the letter, dated Feb. 2, the Board of Education still expressed the opinion that a convenience store would add traffic to an already congested area, posing safety risks to students. The letter had been amended to add the following:
The South Orange Maplewood Board of Education is aware that the current zoning map for Maplewood prohibits a gas station within 300 feet of a school. Therefore, the non-conforming Shell Station at the corner Valley Street and Parker Avenue is already a safety concern for Columbia High School. Although the accommodations that have been discussed by the developer would have a positive impact on student safety, varying from the zoning map even further by adding a second usage would only increase the Board’s concern for student safety.
Maplewood Mayor Vic DeLuca has publicly stated his opposition to the proposal, though he has no say in the Zoning Board decision. On Feb. 10, DeLuca gave this statement to Patch: "I think the proposed 1,800-square foot convenience store for the Parker & Valley intersection is a bad idea. The current level of traffic is already significant, particularly with the activity at the high school in both day and night. Already there is a compromised line of sight when traveling east bound on Parker."
DeLuca continued: "I support bringing business to town but it must be done in a strategic manner and in a way that does not diminish the residential quality of life. Adding a second business to the already conditional use of a gas station is not strategic development and is only an effort to squeeze more revenue from that property for the owner. There is no beneficial use by adding a convenience store there."