With a vote of 5-2—with councilman Filipe Pedroso and Mayor Dan Hayes opposed—the planning board approved a preliminary subdivision application Tuesday for single-family home development on the former Wemple property at Twin Oaks and Steele Gap roads.
The approval came despite vehement opposition from residents living near the property, who said they believe the application is incomplete without several additional studies.
The application is for the building of 17 single-family homes on the woodlands formerly owned by the late John Wemple, and currently owned by Steven Lang.
Wemple, who willed the property to his nieces and nephews after his death in 2002, had maintained to his neighbors that he never wanted to see the land developed, and made that a part of his will, which was overturned by the Superior Court of New Jersey in 2005.
Stop 18 Homes—a group formed to oppose the application itself—has called in engineers and experts in endangered species to testify as to why the development should not move forward.
The subdivison application was approved with the understanding that the board is requiring an environmental impact statement, consultation with the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection Dam Safety Bureau and many more conditions that must be fulfilled before any construction can begin.
"This is a very significant piece of property, and not many of this size in the township available for development," said planning board member Ron Charles. "I am satisfied with getting the DEP in and dealing with the dam situation. We have a number of safeguards put in in terms of conditions, and I know compliance is rigorous."
Planning board member Robert Albano said he believes that if Wemple had wanted the property preserved, he would have made sure it was done before he died.
"It was known to him that the property was given to the nature conservancy," Albano said to cries of foul from members of the audience, many of whom have lived near the Wemple property for decades. "I think this is with the wishes of the initial owner. He had the option of donating to the township, putting it into a conservancy that would not sell it and he chose not to."
"I think it's important to remember that, he had the option and chose the option he chose," he added.
Michael Cresitello, attorney for the applicant, said his client has done everything possible to make changes to accommodate the wishes of both the township and the opposition.
"At your request and urging, we agreed to not develop lot 63, and agreed not to develop the steep slope portion," he said. "We agreed to eliminate another lot to keep the farm structure together, and we agreed to comply with every condition this board has imposed."
"We could have taken an all or nothing approach, which is what the objectors have taken," he added. "We didn't do that, didn't believe it was appropriate. We thought it was a better course of action to work with the board and reach common ground."
In addition, Cresitello said, the proposed development is in keeping with the surrounding land and the character of the neighborhood from a density standpoint.
"We are a permitted use, and this is a proposal for 17 lots on a parcel of land that is in excess of 30 acres," he said. "There is nothing out of character with what we are proposing. This is entirely consistent with the type of development in that area."
Township engineer Robert Bogart said the board is only approving a preliminary site plan, and that additional conditions are being imposed, which will have to be met and evaluated before the applicant returns for approval from the board.
And in order to receive approvals, Bogart said, he has some conditions he would like to see followed, including referring the application to the DEP for reviewal of the dams; placing the upper part of Twin Oaks Road in a conservation easement; getting final approval from the DEP on all wetlands; making sure the speed complies with requirements on Steele Gap Road; complying with requirements of an environmental survey; and having a phase one environmental assessment done, among other conditions.
In addition, township planner Scarlett Doyle said she would like to see additional discussions on landscaping, particularly around the detention basins, among other conditions.
But those against the application painted a very different picture.
Testimony from John Thonet, expert with the opposition, centered on new drainage calculations that he received from the applicant Monday, and how the applicant has determined what is needed to handle run-off in 100-year flood situations.
Thonet said he believes the calculations were all done incorrectly.
"The spillway design was done wrong, it is 50 percent greater than a 100-year flood," he said. "[The calculations weren't] done right so the applicant cannot claim that the application's spillway has been designed with class four spillway standards."
"I don't know if it's too high or too low, it's just wrong," he added.
Foothill Road resident Carol Patullo also provided testimony about the water that flowed down on her property during Hurricane Irene in 2011, saying water came down and eroded the front of her property.
"Drainage would affect all properties behind me," she said, in answer to a question about whether the proposed drainage and subsequent dams could cause additional damage to her property and others in the area.
In his closing argument, Jeffrey Brookner, attorney for the opposition, said he believes the biggest issue is the overreliance on an engineered solution with the dams, as opposed to a natural solution.
"This is something that has to be decided at the preliminary stage, and it is up to the board to decide whether these plans comply," he said. "If you are going to propose an engineered solution, you have to explain why you are not using a natural one."
Brookner said he objects to the applicant's inability to provide a full environmental impact statement, as well as the violation of the township's overflow regulations as described in testimony about the dams.
According to Brookner, it is that lack of feasibility and the fact that the applicant has not provided all studies, that should result in a denial of the application. In addition, he said, the applicant has shown that he cannot comply with certain regulations concerning overflow, dams and much more.
"Here, we are talking about feasibility," he said. "The applicant is not required to show he can comply with every last regulation, but he is obligated to show that, with a reasonable degree of certainty, he can comply with all standards."
"He has talked about some standards he can't meet," he added.
Pedroso said he is concerned with the lack of some studies, and believes more investigation is needed before approval can be given, which is why he voted against the application.
"We have ordinances that provide very specific guidelines, and feel there are questions raised that warrant further investigation," he said. "I agree with the opposition that these should be investigated. I feel the applicant should comply and provide a complete environmental impact statement."
"I do believe the board has the right to look into issues and the preliminary site plan," he added. "I don't feel the application has met the burden of proof, and I concur that the applicant did not satisfy the obligation as to why it cannot comply with natural solutions. I don't feel the case should be granted as is."
But the preliminary site plan was approved by a majority vote, and the application will move forward pending all the conditions placed on it by the board and township professionals.