Plan for Campus Meets Opposition from Neighbors: Trinity Hall looking to locate on Chapel Hill Road

February 7, 2014
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An approximately 64-acre property on Chapel Hill Road, Middletown, could become the site of a new campus for Trinity Hall, an all-girls high school. Photo by John Burton

An approximately 64-acre property on Chapel Hill Road, Middletown, could become the site of a new campus for Trinity Hall, an all-girls high school. Photo by John Burton

By John Burton

MIDDLETOWN – While Trinity Hall, a girls high school, has plans to establish a permanent facility on a large plot of undeveloped property on Chapel Hill Road, neighbors have expressed concerns.

“It’s the wrong project for this spot,” said Linda Glowzenski, who has lived on Chapel Hill Road for about 30 years.

For Glowzenski the issue is traffic on the road that curves through the residential neighborhood of rolling hills and some large homes on large properties, a few with horses. Traffic, she said, has been compounded during the last few years with the opening of Whole Foods at the road’s intersection with state Highway 35. “The road can get crazy,” she said.

Trinity Hall is an independently operated all girls school that advertises its focus as being in the “Catholic tradition” of education. The school began operating in September at Croydon Hall, 900 Leonardville Road, in the township’s Leonardo section. The school leases the site from the township.

School officials began appearing before the township planning board on Jan. 22 and will again appear on Wednesday, Feb. 19, to continue the presentation on its application for a permanent facility at 320 Chapel Hill Road.

According to documents on file at the township planning office, school officials are seeking board approval for the conditional permitted use for a campus that would include academic instruction facilities and eventually facilities for physical education, a chapel/performing arts building and a comfort station intended for the planned athletic fields. School officials also would like to have a 400-meter track with field and five tennis courts flanking the driveway leading to the main academic campus.

School representatives are seeking to have a facility that could eventually accommodate 500 girls in grades 9-12.

The property, located at the intersection of Chapel Hill Road and Kings Highway East, is situated in a rustic, residential neighborhood. It is roughly 64 acres, undeveloped and largely wooded, with plans calling for the use of about 37.65 acres. The remaining approximately 26 would stay undeveloped, in part because of environmental considerations, including acreage designated as protected wetlands, according to a report prepared by T&M Associates, the township’s engineers.

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The property is currently owned by WSLCCC, LLC. of Kingston. School organizers have a contract to purchase, according to John Giunco, the attorney representing Trinity Hall.

“This is the best use for the adjoining property neighbors,” Giunco said.

The attorney pointed out that township planning officials previously approved the site for development of 20 single-family homes. The school, he said, would be a less intensive  use – certainly in its early years – than a residential development.

“It’s a remote, beautiful campus that will not be intrusive to the neighbors,” Giunco said.

Residents, however, are expressing fear of what they see as an intense use of the property and what it would mean for their area.

“It’s inconsistent with the area,” Glowzenski said.

Residents see traffic as a major concern. The road, they said, isn’t capable of handling an influx of cars from students, parents and faculty.

Jennifer Valencia, who lives nearby on Arrowhead Court and has been organizing the opposition to the project, said the area has had some terrible accidents, including some with fatalities of young drivers making their way along the area’s winding roads. “These are the ages we’re worried about,” she said of the students.

“There are things that are out of their (the school’s) control,” she said, noting the width and contours of the roadway. “No school can control the number of its kids that are going to want to drive there.”

Other issues include environmental concerns, she said. The area is home to the black-crowned heron, a threatened species, according to the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP).  There also are issues with flooding in the area and, because the property is a valley, noise can travel, Valencia said.

“Nobody has anything against Trinity,” she insisted. “It’s simply not a place for that.”

She also wondered about the school’s viability. Given that some Roman Catholic schools have closed in region over the last few years, what would happen if this school ceased operation, she asked.

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“You can’t unbuild it. You can’t get the environment back,” she stressed.

Trinity Hall cannot stay at its current location because of it is designated a DEP Green Acres site. The state agency agreed only to a two-year lease for the location, Giunco said.

The school did about $500,000 in renovations at the site in addition to paying rent to the township, according to Giunco.

Another reason for looking for a new location is because of the Croydon Hall site itself. “I don’t think that’s the quality or style of campus these people would like to have,” Giunco said.

Because a school is a permitted use and the project does not need any variances from the board, the attorney said, “I suspect, as a matter of law, this should get approved.”

But he insisted his clients are willing to talk to homeowners. “We came in here as good neighbors and if these folks have legitimate issues,” he offered, “we’ll address them.”

Some of the homeowners, including Valencia, have taken the stand that the best defense is a strong offense, and have retained their own lawyer to represent them. About a dozen of them have so far contributed to the legal fund, she said, to hire Red Bank lawyer Ron Gasiorowski. Gasiorowski has represented objectors to such controversial projects as the Four Ponds townhouse development in Lincroft and the Hampton Inn, in Red Bank.

Gasiorowski did not respond to a request for comment this week.

“I view this problem as bigger than just our neighborhood,” Valencia explained. People move to Middletown for a certain quality of life and a project like this would infringe upon it, she believed. “The second you lose the things that attract people here, it’s going to stop being what you love so much about it,” she worried.

Ideally she and others would like to see the property purchased and preserved as open space, and they hope to encourage local officials and organizations to pursue that tract, Valencia said.

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