NEWTON, NJ – The topic of the proposed Taco Bell for Newton on Water Street (Route 206) on the corner of Hamilton Street ended with a “to be continued” status at the Wednesday, August 19 Newton Planning Board meeting.
The applicant, which is listed under MNA Newton Realty, LLC is seeking approval for a preliminary and final site plan for: 45-47 Water Street; 8 Hamilton Street, Block 9.01 Lot 2; and 10 Hamilton Street, Block 9.01 Lot 3. The applicant is additionally seeking “C” variances for the restaurant.
The initial request appeared on the planning board’s agenda on Wednesday, July 15, at which time the applicants provided testimony about their planned project.
The planning board called for a five-minute recess on Wednesday night’s meeting at approximately 9 p.m., with plans to continue with the testimony of the applicant’s construction expert following the break. The testimony kicked off that evening with the applicant’s engineer. However, parties on behalf of the applicant announced they would defer the continued discussion until the next meeting, to allow for an awaiting new applicant to be able to have time on the floor, Iliff Camps & Clinics LLC (click here for that story).
The applicant’s engineer, George Gloede of G. Gloede and Associates had previously taken the floor at the meeting on July 15. The applicant herself, Mittal Patel, manager of MNA Realty, was asked questions at that last meeting as well.
She explained that she was under contract for the above-mentioned properties, including the current parking lot that The County Seat and its tenants use, as well as a single-family home on Hamilton Street. She said that she also had plans to purchase The County Seat Property across the street. Patel said in her testimony that The County Seat building would continue to hold the apartments, but the restaurant would no longer be in operation and under another retail use. If Patel is able to obtain clearance for her plan, she would apply for parking for the retail use of The County Seat.
While initially at the July 15 meeting Patel was asked questions about the restaurant design, Town Manager Thomas S. Russo, Jr. asked for Patel’s focus instead to be on the operations, not the building design, with Gloede taking the helm for the discussion about the design.
At that time, Gloede advised that the proposed Taco Bell would span a total area of .51 acres, with a potential reduction to .50 acres. There would be 40 seats planned and ten parking spaces, plus eight spaces for The County Seat apartments. He said in place of The County Seat restaurant, a 1,200 square foot liquor store could be in place. The County Seat’s liquor license would be transferred to Patel after all of the background checks are to be completed, as well as the approval from the town council. Potentially, he said there could be 24 parking spaces in total on the proposed property and that there are 25 spaces on the site, including those that are for wheelchair accessibility.
Signage will indicate where the residents can park and the town’s planner stated that a five-foot strip exists between the parking lot and adjacent property in the plans as well as a retaining wall.
Gloede said that no bypass lane would exist because Taco Bell “corporate doesn’t like to see bypass lanes. They want you to place an order. We will place a sign at the entrance saying drive-through only to make sure everybody is aware that once you go in you are committed.”
Parking, he said, would exist in the front of the building, with the rationale that it is better for pedestrian safety.
Patel explained that hours of operation for the drive-through would be from 10 a.m. until midnight. She said that the speaker to the drive-through could be controlled “to eliminate the overspill of sound to adjoining properties so it won’t be a nuisance.” The restaurant would be open itself until 10 p.m. She said her deliveries would be at 6 a.m. twice weekly from an 18-wheeler truck, but that they would seek a smaller box truck for deliveries, no larger than 30 feet maximum.
Gloede at that time asked for relief on the setbacks because the building could not be 12 feet off of the property line, as it did not work with the traffic flow.
At the July 15 meeting, Mike Benzy, owner of 7 and 7.5 Hamilton Street asked if parking would be reduced in front of his house, as well as headlights. He also asked about the impact on the street because at that point, it is one-way only traffic.
Gloede said there was no choice of the location of the driveway, but that there might be a second driveway for traffic flow. Benzy asked instead if the traffic flow could be directed to the front of Water Street, rather than his street. Gloede said that would not be possible with the DOT (Department of Transportation) restrictions and the state must give approval.
Mayor Dan Flynn spoke disapprovingly of the idea of the liquor store in place of The County Seat at the July 15 meeting. He said with parking planned for across the street by the proposed Taco Bell, it would be dangerous for pedestrians and most would likely bypass the liquor store because of it. He said that the foot traffic it would bring would also be undesirable.
“So you’ve lost the liquor license that we’ve been trying to get in this town for years for a retail liquor license for a store that has inadequate parking,” Flynn said. “Do we have to explain what liquor stores with inadequate parking means for the Town of Newton? The clientele that is going to frequent them is not going to be someone who wants to pick up a nice bottle of wine and bring it home. It’s going to cater to foot traffic in Newton. If you want to see what this looks like go and observe in front of the Spring Street Liquor Store. You’re not going to be selling nice bottles of wine or micro-brewed beer. You’re going to be selling 24 oz. cans, six packs of domestics, cheap wine. It’s a huge loss. We’re gaining a ratable property on a vacant lot, but we’re losing a restaurant that doesn’t have a voice in this situation and two, the liquor licenses that we’ve been trying to get the entire time. It’s a huge loss here.”
Russo suggested that Patel could have a different type of establishment in the building.
“I don’t want to leave that up to them,” Flynn replied.
Planning board member Joseph Ricciardo said that the application is based on the closure of The County Seat, with Patel’s purchase of the liquor license and opening up the store and that it is irrelevant to the current application.
“It [the application] has everything to do with it,” Flynn said. “You’re losing a full service restaurant that is a consumption liquor license and we know that it can’t be another restaurant again because there is no parking for it.”
Flynn reiterated that The County Seat would no longer exist if the application was approved and the site would not become another restaurant.
The County Seat does not own the building or the lot.
Russo replied that, “The County Seat has been a valuable member of the community and they are unfortunately, beholden to the activities of the landlord.”
Patel suggested on July 15 that parking would be inadequate should a restaurant be opened in place of The County Seat. She said she could consider making the ground floor residences instead.
“You just reinforced my point as to why I can’t look at the application separately, because you’re under utilizing the building, which you have to purchase in order to build the site here.”
Patel vouched she holds experience with other Taco Bells, including three in Pennsylvania in Holmesdale, East Stroudsburg and Milford, plus is planning to open the Taco Bell in Franklin approximately the third week of August. Patel felt that the Taco Bell in Newton would be ideal and preferred placement in Newton proper, because of the accessibility to foot traffic.
She said, “We have been in this area for a very long time,” when asked about why she had chosen the area for that business if 75 percent was drive-through accommodations. “ This is the only site that really worked with our requirements. We were looking to buy, not lease. We have been looking for two-and-a-half years and this is the only one that fits in our budget.”
Planning board member Kent Hardmeyer said he did not see the design blended well with the Aberlour building.
“This comes from corporate,” said Patel. “They have other styles, but this is the newest model and they have approved it. I cannot change it. Corporate has to change it.”
She also told Bezney, when he asked her at the July 15 meeting if the hours of operation could be lessened to 10 p.m., that “I can’t speak for corporate, but it will not be allowed.”
Among the discussion on August 19, Gloede continued to discuss the placement of a 10-foot parking buffer, 6 foot high fence and arbor vitae surrounding the property, in attempts to keep the property insulated from the neighborhood, including the Hamilton Street residences and the Aberlour apartment building, which was also a way to shield those properties from trash. He also noted that Aberlour has a masonry fence itself.
Gloede was questioned about the proposed building’s height and was asked if headlights would disturb the residents, including those at Aberlour, which he replied “no,” because the residences begin approximately a floor above the potential restaurant. He described the anticipated building height as about one and one-half stories tall.
It terms of headlight spillage onto Hamilton Street, Gloede testified it would be remedied with tree plantings and shrubs.
Gloede described that the restaurant would have a setback from the street “typical of a town center,” with the building closer to the sidewalk. However, when asked further about the setback of the other businesses, he noted that “some were close and some were further set back.”
Some snickers came from the audience to his comment, with a number of people there carrying signs in protest that they held up in front of the municipal building prior to the meeting, when Gloede stated that the “plan was typical of this type of an area that we’re in.”
Those against the project have held concerns about the impact on The County Seat restaurant, which currently remains open, as well as other businesses and the nearby residents.
Parking is slated for the building’s front with the drive-through wrapping behind. When asked about the cars that might be stacked from the entrance to the drive-through, Gloede testified that there would be no more than eight cars anticipated at any time, with the entrance to that drive-through about 200 feet from Water Street.
“There’s never been an issue with cars piling up before the order board,” Gloede said.
He added that in previous studies the drive-through customers waited no more than two minutes per order, from the board to the physical carry out of their orders. He said that about 75 percent of the business would come from drive-through customers.
Planning board member Helen Le Frois asked about the traffic flow from Hamilton Street to Water Street/Route 206 in the direction of Sparta. Gloede said that a traffic study has not been performed yet of that nature because there are already a significant amount of cars making a right onto Water Street. He said that people in general will habitually take the shortest route and may instead divert onto Hamilton, exiting right from the restaurant, and then continuing up to Trinity Street to return in the direction of Sparta, if that was the way they are headed.
“It’s hard to determine what people will do,” he said.
Planning board member Neil Flaherty aired his concerns about the high school and college students that would likely patronize the restaurant the most and are newer drivers. His input was that there could be a greater potential for accidents at lunchtime, especially among that segment of the driving population. He also requested a study on the negative impact the traffic circulation could hold for Hamilton Street.
Gloede suggested incorrectly that those seeking entrance into the restaurant could use the “center turn lane” that existed on Water Street/Route 206, heading in the direction of the courthouse. Members of the board corrected him that a center turn lane did not exist, but a left turn lane that was intended for those turning that direction onto Trinity Street.
Ricciardo said that since the July 15 meeting that he had reviewed building sizes on Taco Bell’s website for franchisees and though Gloede had said that the building proposed to the town was cited the smallest, that there were even smaller ones, with a 20-foot sites versus an 18-foot sites. Gloede said he had not seen the sites before that Ricciardo spoke of and said that even if the restaurant were smaller in width, the length would remain the same.
Parking was another topic of discussion in terms of residents from the County Seat building, with temporary parking offered during construction with ten spaces for the tenants residing in that building’s eight apartments. Once the residence behind the restaurant, which the applicants would purchase, is taken down, there will be a gravel area for those residents.
The signage was additionally discussed, which the request is for a pylon style sign on the corner of Water and Hamilton Streets.
Snow removal was another topic, with snow removal consistently cleared from the applicants snow removal contractors to keep the sidewalk, parking lots and drive-throughs clear.
Hardmeyer offered concerns about the market value of the homes surrounding the proposed Taco Bell. “What I would be looking at is not great.”
When asked questions about the signage and lighting, Gloede described the sign as “great” and “tastefully done,” and indicating the lighting would not be illuminated 24-hours daily, but only during hours of operation.
Bezney appeared again at the August 19 meeting and grilled Gloede about his testimony regarding the traffic studies if what Gloede commented on was hearsay since he was not a traffic expert. Bezney also asked the shrubbery the applicants were proposing for his property and if it was against town ordinances if it blocked his view. The town planner Jessica Caldwell said there were no ordinances of that nature.
Lydia Zimmer, another resident, asked about the signage, with concern that the intensity of the lights could be disruptive to the residents of the Aberlour.
Gina Ellion also said that she had concerns on the impact it would have on residents on Hamilton Street and the one-way traffic.
Michelle Crowley said she felt the diesel trucks running early in the morning would be loud and disruptive for the residents.
Another resident had concerns that although the speaker could be muted, with it, it would bring the noise of cars driving in with radios blaring as they pass through the drive-through. “You all don’t understand what this franchise brings. You’re still impacting a neighborhood. It doesn’t make sense. The Patels don’t live here. We’ve been here over 50 years.”
When Earl Schick asked about how the turning radius would work, Gloede answered that the two-way street would extend an additional two feet, which would eliminate some of the parking that is on the street. Another resident who lives on Hamilton Street complained that parking adjacent to her home would then be compromised.
Greg Nardoza said that he was concerned about the pedestrian traffic and the safety for pedestrians from the high school, college and motorized wheelchairs. Goede said that there would be adequate room on the sidewalk as well as for vehicular traffic.
Ken Wise from the perspective of a first responder asked about the bypass lane if it could be installed, noting there were other fast food eateries like McDonald’s, Burger King and Dunkin Donuts with those types of bypass. Gloede answered that the site plan does not provide for a bypass.
When Dale Duckworth asked about the amount of customers that would be anticipated weekly at the restaurant, the applicants responded about 5,000 to 7,000 weekly were anticipated.
Schick said that though the opinion is that it would provide sought out tax revenue, the traffic from those expected customers would, in turn, drive business away. His concerns entailed neighboring local businesses like Dominick’s, Hayek’s, Jersey Dog and Mark’s Automotive would lose business, because potential patrons would become frustrated from the traffic. Gloede countered that people tend to gravitate towards a group of businesses within the same geographical area.
The County Seat currently still holds time on its lease and offered on its Facebook Page on July 23, there are no plans to close. “Obviously, there is a plan in place but that plan could easily fall apart. Even if it does fall apart, it would not come to fruition for quite some time.”
The discussion about this application is planned for continuation at the Wednesday, September 23 planning board meeting at 7 p.m., with no additional public notice given about the meeting.
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