There were high hopes the finish line might finally be crossed at this month’s township Planning Board meeting. Instead, a decision on an application – including a site plan with variances – by Lake Hopatcong Ventures (LHV) for a project on Espanong Road seems to have turned into a marathon run.
Plans for a 16,000-square-foot mixed-use building have been in the works since early 2017, and were first presented to the Planning Board last June. Since then, developers have responded to various board requests, while studies and research were pursued.
Nevertheless, the Planning Board has been unable to reach consensus, resulting in postponements that have been frustrating to both residents and LHV, which operates under the holding company Camp Six. As reported earlier by The Jefferson Chronicle’s Jane Primerano, Camp Six operates several businesses on Lake Hopatcong including the Main Lake Market, the Miss Lotta tour boat and the miniature golf course. Additionally, the company operates both The Windlass and Alice’s restaurants.
This month’s meeting again ended without a decision on the project. But the meeting did, however, reveal some history regarding the Espanong Road property as well as some new relevant information.
Same Story, Different Time
Back in 2004, the township Planning Board was presented with a similar situation for development of a majority of the property in question. At the time, the proposal was for a 7,800-sq-ft structure – Espanong Plaza – and a parking lot. Although the project never materialized, it was approved on April 30, 2004. And since then, it was noted, the township’s zoning laws have not changed, meaning that particular project may still be viable.
More recently, a traffic flow study was conducted, the results of which were presented as a positive to the board. According to the study by a traffic flow expert, the proposed project would neither substantially increase traffic, nor pose safety hazards.
This notion was countered vigorously by residents who noted that the study was done in a winter month rather than in one of the summer months, the busiest and most trafficked period in the lake area.
One resident rhetorically asked how a traffic study is done in the winter when the recreation happens in the summer. Another asked: “How do you come up with numbers for traffic if we don’t know what kind of retail is going in?”
Nevertheless, the developer reported that the traffic flow plan for the development, as well as signage had received approval from the county. Additionally, the parking variance had been obtained from the county as well, no longer necessitating board approval.
And while LHV’s original plans for the Espanong Road property had not been revised, some modifications were made to the plans. For one, the building itself will be reconfigured to have less office space and more warehouse space, reducing the parking requirements to 65 spaces. Another modification divided the original retail space into two spaces from one space.
What Are They Waiting For?
In addition to comments about traffic flow, residents also expressed concern over decision-making postponements.
One resident told The Chronicle there is worry by area residents that the postponements will result in loss of interest by those opposed to the project. “At a meeting last year, there was standing room only,” he noted, adding that attendance has decreased over the months due to inactivity by the developer and the board.
At this month’s meeting, about 25-30 residents were in attendance, all of whom live in the Espanong Road neighborhood. Based on comments, all are opposed to the development project, which they say will bring added traffic to the area and which they note is already congested in the summer months.
One resident faced the board squarely and stated boldly: “We don’t want this. We don’t want this development.”
So What Do Residents Want?
During several days after the board meeting, The Chronicle visited the Espanong Road area and spoke to residents about the development proposal.
Some were opposed to the project simply because they believed it wasn’t needed. “What we need is a large grocery store in the area to replace the Pathmark that closed down. If they want to build something, they should build a supermarket,” a resident told The Chronicle. His idea was echoed by several others.
“We need affordable housing,” said another resident. “They should build houses on that property and keep the character of the neighborhood.”
The neighborhood’s character was uppermost in the minds of many residents we spoke to. “This is a quiet lakeside neighborhood. All this building will change its character,” another resident offered.
While the area does in fact appear residential, the site of the development is zoned C-1, which permits commercial use.
Nevertheless, the residents there don’t want it “commercialized,” as one put it, adding, “It’s going to be an eyesore.”
In requesting variances to build a 16,000-sq-ft mixed-use building on Espanong Road, the Camp Six application cites The Municipal Land Use Law. One reason to request a variance, as stated in the application, notes “the variances requested must benefit the community in that they represent a better zoning alternative for the property.”
“Does this building benefit the community?” one resident mused.
It may be one of the more difficult questions the Planning Board has to resolve. Does it turn down a valuable tax ratable? Or maintain the character of a neighborhood?