After more than two hours of public discussion on the topic Tuesday, the voted 3 to 2 against creating an ordinance that would amend the permitted land use at the intersection of Changebridge Road and Route 202.
If passed, the purpose to allow gas stations to be developed on the property would have benefitted property owner William O'Dowd's intentions to develop a Quick Chek mega gas station and convenience store at the site. If O'Dowd wishes to proceed with the project, he will have to face the Zoning Board of Adjustment to discuss conditional uses or variances for the property.
While a few residents who spoke were in favor of a Quick Chek at that location, the majority of those who spoke were against the development for fear of traffic congestion and danger of placing a gas station close to power lines. The majority of residents who spoke live in the Changebridge at Montville association.
O'Dowd's attorney, George Kroculick, prepared a presentation for the township committee and invited licensed planning consultant Peter Steck to speak to O'Dowd's intentions and how he felt the development would benefit the township. Steck spoke about the township's Master Plan, which was re-developed over the course of two years, and said that while there was pressure to complete the document, the township should consider making some changes.
In the Master Plan, Steck said, there are several suggested and allowed uses for the zone in question, including galleries, antique shops, clothing stores, shoe stores, cleaners and hardware stores. Some of the bigger allowances are for drugstores and even grocery stores, depending on the size. But what is not permitted, according to the Master Plan as written, are gas stations-a land use allowance imperative to O'Dowd's development plan moving forward.
O'Dowd owns 4.7 acres of land where Changebridge Road and Route 202 meet. Admittedly, O'Dowd knew gas stations were not permitted in the zone when he purchased the land, but, according to his representatives, he has been seeking to have the land use permissions changed for several years.
Steck argued that the way the Master Plan is written, there are not many incentives included for a developer in the zone and there are, in fact, deterrants. One of which is that a developer would need to build a road that would provide rear access to all of the lots in the section, which include the . Steck said this is a condition that cannot be met by developers who cannot afford to complete the road.
But O'Dowd believes Quick Chek would fund the roadway, which Steck estimated would be worth $1 million, as the company sees potential in creating a store at that location. Additionally, Steck said Quick Chek may fund a traffic light at the intersection. Some residents considered the project a gift to the township.
"I see this as a $1 million gift and a safety factor that's well-deserved for the residents of Montville," one said.
Steck said the Master Plan should encourage development, like this, in the township.
"The whole purpose of this is to create mechanisms to get something constructed," he said.
Other benefits of the development of the project, he said, include adding a ratable to the township's tax base and creating competition amongst gas stations offering the cheapest gas. But competition became an issue of contention with the project after Steck implied that the cheaper Quick Chek gas could affect , located across the street, business.
"This is America, you get to compete," he said.
One resident noted that the competition could drive Exxon away from Changebridge Road, causing the township to then lose a ratable.
Steve Sammit, a Changebridge at Montville resident, was concerned about the potential for increased traffic at the intersection that could come with cheaper gas.
"You're selling cheap gas on an exit of (Route) 287 where you have a north and south exit to come into. It's like a goldmine," he said.
Marcia Lederman called Quick Chek a "monstrosity" and opposed the project because she said the mega gas station and convenience store would take away from the character of the community.
"I think to bring in the monstrosity like the Quick Chek would not only do a disservice to the people of Changebridge at Montville, but a disservice to the people of the township itself," she said.
But, in responding to the comments, O'Dowd said he does not feel a Quick Chek would cause more traffic probelms.
"I contend that our development is not going to change (traffic) in a meaningful manner," he said, adding later, "I don't believe the traffic on (Route) 202 is as bad as you're making it."
Residents were also concerned about the power lines that run adjacent to both sides of the property. Sammit referenced an explosion in 1994 in Edison where a gas station was developed over power lines.
"You're putting in a match that's going to the light the bomb," he said.
Planning Board Vice Chairman Gary Lewis said the board denied O'Dowd's application for the Quick Chek development three times and that the township committee should not amend the land use in the zone to conform to his development plans as there are other appropriate uses on the property.
"A service station and convenience store is not the only option for this site. Do not be fooled," he said.
He also asked that the township committee not weigh their decision entirely on the prospect of the road being funded.
"Don't sell this community out for a road for $1 million," he said.
In her remarks, Township Committeewoman Deborah Nielson said she has already had conversations with county representatives who have said they will work to help the township receive funding to aid with the construction of the road, regardless of what is developed there. Nielson said she felt that O'Dowd's presentation before the township committee was an effort to receive more support before returning to the Planning Board.
"He lobbied us individually and collectively," she said.
Nielson also said that while allowing the Quick Check development to move forward would bring a new ratable to the township, the township needed "the right ratables." She referenced the land use allowances on Route 46, where gas stations and adult book stores are both permitted.
"If we're chasing ratables, we should put an adult book store there. I'm sure we'll get a lot of customers," she said.
Committeeman Scott Gallopo said before the presentation that he did not feel it was right that the committee was presented the information without time to review materials in advance before being asked to make a decision. He did, however, comment on the current traffic conditions in that area.
"This intersection, currently, is a nightmare for traffic," he said.
Gallopo said he was interested in hearing about the potential traffic effects from experts before the committee made a decision either way on amending the ordinance. He recommended a separate public hearing be held after traffic studies are conducted.
However, Mayor Tim Braden questioned Township Attorney James Bryce on whether the committee could allow traffic studies on a development project that does not currently have an application in with one of the township's land use boards. Bryce advised that the township committee would need to approve a motion to draft an ordinance that would ammend the land use permissions in the zone and then hold a public hearing where the traffic studies could be discussed. Committeeman Jim Sandham made that motion.
"I'd like to understand what the traffic impact is," he said.
Sandham also said that while he respects the opinions of the residents, he felt that O'Dowd's interests should also be considered.
"I think that a person's entitled to develop their property," he said.
Braden felt that the issue would be better handled by the land use boards becasue they are "a-political."
"We are a political body," he said. "Sometimes, some people in our position may put their fingers up to the wind and see which way it's blowing."
Braden, Nielson and Gallopo voted against drafting the ordinance while Sandham and Committeeman Don Kostka voted for it.