LOWER MAKEFIELD >> The Board of Supervisors on Thursday voted 4 to 1 to advertise an overlay district that could open the doors to the development of a Wegman’s Supermarket in the township’s office research zone.
The supervisors met virtually for a second time this month to review the proposed overlay district that would allow two parcels of land in the office research zone to be developed with a mix of commercial and residential uses. The 37 acres of land are located on Stony Hill Road between Township Line and the Newtown Bypass across from Shady Brook Farm.
“We’re looking to approve an overlay district only. We’re not looking to completely change the zoning,” explained supervisor Dan Grenier at a prior meeting. “An overlay district provides additional development options. It does not replace the existing OR zone.”
If the overlay is ultimately approved by the board of supervisors, DeLuca Homes and Equus Capital Partners (Shady Brook Investors LP) are expected to submit development plans to the township for Pricket Run at Edgewood, a mixed use development anchored by a 120,000 square foot Wegman’s, 200 luxury apartments and clubhouse and 55,000 square feet of commercial space, including restaurant and retail uses.
In addition, the developers have voluntarily agreed to repurpose an historic farmhouse and barn as part of the retail development of the site. They have also said they will preserve a number of old growth trees at the site, create public spaces for events and build walking and bicycle trails that will link the project to nearby Edgewood village.
The plan, said the development group’s attorney Steve Harris, is in keeping with an update to the township’s comprehensive plan, which identified additional uses, including mixed use projects, as an option in the office research zone either as permitted uses or under an overlay district. The township made the changes in response to a shift in the marketplace away from office parks.
Plans for a 135,000 square foot warehouse and an office complex have previously been approved for the two properties.
Roughly half of the meeting was devoted to going through the nuts and bolts of the proposed ordinance, including language changes and conditional use provisions.
Several issues prompted a give-and-take among the supervisors, including allowances for drive-throughs as a conditional use.
At one point, supervisor John Lewis motioned unsuccessfully to remove drive-throughs and drive-in windows as a conditional use option for banks, drug stores and restaurants in the overlay zone.
“I’m having a hard time with the idea of drive-throughs in a mixed use area,” said Lewis. “If we are truly going to have a mixed use area, there shouldn’t be Drive-throughs. It should be pedestrian-friendly primarily.”
Chairman Fred Weiss argued in favor of keeping the drive-through and drive-in window option. “In the new normal, drive-throughs, walk-throughs, however they design future buildings, this may be something that would be vital for business,” he said.
After hearing from the developer, fine tuning the language of the overlay and listening to close to two hours worth of public comment, the board voted 4-1 to advertise the ordinance.
For the next 45 days, the public has an opportunity to review the ordinance. At the end of the 45 days, the board of supervisors will hold a public Hearing to consider passage of the district.
In the meantime, the pending overlay will be sent to the township’s planning commission for its review and recommendation.
During public comment, the supervisors heard from 18 residents, including four in favor of the overlay and 13 against.
A handful of residents called for the board to delay action until it can be done in person.
Attorney Eric Goldberg, representing residents Larry Borda and Dobby Dobson, called the Zoom process into question from a due process stand point.
“It’s very hard to follow along on my television. And honestly, I can barely see, and for the most part, couldn’t see what was up on the screen,” said Goldberg. “As supervisors, you want to hear all the thoughts of the residents. I’m not sure all those thoughts can be articulated in such a hearing to gauge the room and understand how the citizens feel. I don’t think people are effectively heard.
“This is a very important matter and perhaps one of the most singularly important undeveloped parcels in Lower Makefield,” said Goldberg. “There’s really one shot to get this right and whatever decision you make is going to help define Lower Makefield for decades to come. So it’s essential to get this correct.”
“There’s no rush to get this development through,” said Borda, who was among a group of residents who successfully fought plans for big box stores on Big Oak Road back in the early 2000s. “Instead of going through this difficult venue ... put off this hearing until the limitations are lifted and we can have a dialogue face-to-face ... There is no huge benefit to the township from a tax standpoint to rush this through.”
In response to calls to delay the process, township attorney Barbara Kirk noted that the process started a year ago based on a petition submitted by the developers. “That petition has been pending for more than a year and they have graciously awaited due to the Covid-19,” said Kirk. “They could, by all rights, file a writ of mandamus with the court to direct the board to hear the petition. Moving this along in the format that it has been, considering the circumstances, is what I feel to be appropriate.”
Turning to traffic, Borda requested that the developer’s 500 page traffic study be expanded to include the Big Oak/Township Line Road Bridge over I-295, saying its inclusion would be “a good gesture to the township and to the people who go through that intersection everyday.”
Steven Harris, the developer’s attorney, said they have already committed to $6.5 million worth of traffic improvements “to make a major improvement, not only along the frontage, but also on the bypass and at I-295.
“We feel that is more than sufficient to deal with not only the traffic impacts that will be generated, but the massive impacts that already exist,” said Harris. “What we have committed to do is to making the situation better after the development than it is today,” he said. “The developers are making a major contribution to improving traffic conditions in Lower Makefield.”
Borda also called upon the supervisors to limit signage along Stony Hill Road to prevent it from appearing like another Street Road “with a series of Applebee’s and TGIFs and drive-through liquor stores and the abomination visually that goes with it,” he said. Think hard about taking what is currently a fairly lovely place with open fields and a lot of greenery and try to preserve it as much as possible so that it doesn’t look like Street Road.”
Resident Lisa Tenney voiced opposition to the overlay citing “excessive traffic, business closures, potential pollution and sewer problems” and warned the board that it might be opening itself up to future requests for zoning changes from other landowners in the OR district.
Mel Hall, who started a petition in favor of the Wegman’s last year, said after reposting the petition the day of the latest hearing 100 more had signed on, raising the number up to 1600 names.
“Wegman’s is different from the grocery stores we have now,” she said. “Wegman’s, Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s are in a different category. It would bring something different. I think there’s more support than you guys probably see from what I hear,” she said. “Everyone keeps talking about traffic. From what I hear an extensive 500 page traffic study was done to address the issues we already have plus to accommodate this.”
“Let’s get this mixed use ordinance done. Let’s move it forward from concept to reality so we can enjoy it and benefit from it,” added Thomas Kearney, a 23 year resident. “I am in full agreement and support of this overlay district. Progress and development are inevitable as long as it’s done in an intelligent, pragmatic and intelligent manner. A Mixed use development is desirable over an office building or a warehouse.”
“Wegman’s is good, but at what price,” asked Anna Lawler. “I have serious concerns about the traffic. And Wegman’s, while a wonderful institution, who knows what the climate will be 10 years from now and we’ve desecrated that section of our township. I’m not sure why it has to be built there.”
Frank Gallo joined previous callers in criticizing the Zoom meeting format, calling it “an ineffective way of looking at something so consequential. I don’t see the need to rush this through. I think it’s important to give it the time to have a face-to-face meeting.”
Gallo said he’s “100 percent” against the overlay. “We have a beautiful community. Now you want to change that substantially to now be more of a a commercial and industrial establishment. I’m also very upset that you spent the majority your time looking at nuts and bolts to ensure that Wegman’s can have a place at the table when we have some very fine markets in the town who have been very philanthropic and charitable with their profits, particularly McCaffrey’s. It’s abhorrent that we aren’t recognizing the contributions to our community. Secondly, you can easily go to Wegman’s over in Princeton. We don’t need it here. There’s no need to degrade our community with this overlay for something the community doesn’t need.”
Mark Cercone of West Wellington Road said he supports the plan wholeheartedly. “Anyone who watched the last meeting they would have walked away knowing that the traffic issue, which was the major opposition, has been addressed. If those improvements do not go in and this development does not go in and the improvements are not made, we are looking at a worsening situation over time with traffic.
“We want to see this go through. We not only need it we deserve it. Wegman’s is a superior shopping experience. It is about time we had that kind of option,” he said. “This development is going to increase the value of living in Lower Makefield.”
Longtime resident Janet Smith said she’s against the development and the traffic it will bring to the township.
“I am not in favor of this big development. I am concerned about traffic,” she said. “It’s not good now and it certainly will be far worse once this whole area is developed ... I’m concerned about the roads, the costs. I’m also concerned about the sewers and the taxes as they keep going up and up.”