By Jay Cook
MIDDLETOWN – The township’s Planning Board advanced a redevelopment plan for 150 acres along Route 35 Monday night, but not without some criticism.
At a nearly two-hour-long meeting Aug. 13 with about 80 residents packed into the town hall meeting room, the Middletown Township Planning Board found the Circus Liquor Redevelopment Plan in compliance with the township Master Plan and approved it 5-1.
Board member Mark Davis offered the lone dissenting vote. He has been critical of the redevelopment from the beginning.
“I think this process that we’re going through it totally unfair to the public,” said Davis, who was met with applause and cheers from the public. “This is being railroaded through in a vacation month of August with very little public view. I think it’s totally inappropriate.”
Monday evening’s meeting was the latest chapter in a nearly three-year ordeal with developers, Planning Board meetings and more recently, with township officials. The Circus Liquors Redevelopment Plan encompasses about 150 acres of commercial and wooded property along a half-mile stretch of Route 35 north-bound from Kanes Lane to Kings Highway East.
The redevelopment plan calls for up to 400,000 square feet of commercial space and a maximum of 400 housing units on the property; a minimum of 80 units must be set aside for affordable housing.
The plan’s namesake comes from a liquor store behind the Calico the Clown sign at the property.
A public hearing and possible final adoption of the redevelopment plan is scheduled for 8 p.m. Aug. 20 at town hall.
Residents in attendance Monday night were hopeful about speaking on the record against the project. They weren’t given that chance.
Acting chairman Carl Rathjen denied allowing public comment, referencing state statute. Planning Board attorney James Gorman also suggested public comment not be accepted. Rathjen said residents could speak up at Planning Board meetings when a site plan is ultimately filed.
“Believe me, the Planning Board will use a jaundiced eye looking at this project,” said Rathjen. “There are a lot of good things and a lot of bad things, but we really will look at it very closely. I can guarantee you that.”
A grassroots group called Minding Middletown has formed and filed a lawsuit with the town. Their new attorney, Andrew J. Provence, said the board should have gone beyond the legal purview for the scores of concerned residents.
“Sometimes in life there’s what you can do and what you should do,” Provence told board members. “You don’t have to run for Planning Board but your town needs you and you sit there. We’re requesting that you listen to the residents regarding this specific issue.”
A presentation about Master Plan compliance was laid out by Fran Reiner, a professional planner with DMR Architects, who was retained by the township.
Reiner said fast food drive-thrus aren’t permitted on the entire development, but drive-thrus for banks, pharmacies and supermarkets are allowed. At least 30 percent of the 150 acres must be set aside for open space and an interconnect road with sidewalks, lighting and landscaping must be built to separate the commercial and residential tracts.
Other components required by the redevelopment plan include low-flow toilets, parking lots separated by landscaping buffers, one electric car charging station for every 300 spaces and LED lighting on all signage and parking lot lighting.
The commercial complex should be built in a “village-style” architecture with earth tones, the plan describes.
Davis questioned if the redevelopment plan limited the flexibility to attract other developers. Reiner said “everybody knows that” a specific developer has been working with township officials to craft the redevelopment plan.
National Realty & Development Corp. (NRDC) president John Orrico was seated in the second row Monday evening with his legal team. Orrico and NRDC had proposed to build the Village 35 commercial complex on the front 52 acres of this property over the last few years. His proposed site plan and the Circus Liquors Redevelopment Plan almost entirely mirror each other.
Reiner said he also met with a group of residents and township officials, “all in an effort to try to examine the various issues and concerns everybody had about the property.”
Planned development at this property – known locally as the Mountain Hill tract – has been discussed for nearly 25 years. Master plans in 2004, 2009 and 2014 either briefly or distinctly touched on redevelopment there.
This article first appeared in the August 16 – 23, 2018 print edition of The Two River Times.
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