Sunbrite withdraws application for condo project

| 21 Feb 2012 | 10:43

    FRANKLIN - In a stunning, last-minute decision, Sunbrite Investments LLC of Wayne, the proposed developer of the old Franklin Hospital site, withdrew its three-pronged application from the Zoning Board of Adjustment last week, moments before the seven-member panel was to have voted on the variances sought. The application was withdrawn when it appeared that the board would not approve the variances Sunbrite, headed by developer Jerry Nardella, needed to build the 192-unit age-restricted housing project. Despite Sunbrite's action, the project is far from dead, as the developer indicated he will seek a zoning change on the 19-acre tract that would allow it to build the project. The land is zoned for single-family residences. Sunbrite has been pursuing its application to replace the former hospital, the first such facility in Sussex County, for five months. The proposed condominium complex, which would have been restricted to senior citizens without children, has been strongly supported by numerous borough officials. But local residents have bitterly opposed it, making impassioned pleas to the zoning board not to grant any of the three variances for increases in height and density, as well as a change from R-2 designation. "I don't know what I can do other than get down on my hands and knees, and beg you not to ruin my life," exclaimed Ed Sprich of Kane Road to the board. Strich has contended the Sunbrite Project would be harmful to the many children living and playing in the area. "I guarantee you that if anyone on this board lived in my neighborhood, you'd all vote against it. I guarantee it." Scott Seelagy, the Sparta-based attorney representing Nardella, opened the meeting last Wednesday by announcing that Sunbrite was scaling back its project by eliminating one of the eight three-story buildings origially called for, decreasing the number of units from 192 to 168, as well as decreasing the size of the footprints of the other seven buildings. Seelagy explained that the concessions would have a "positive effect on the density," as well as mitigate some of the concerns stated earlier by the project's critics. Sunbrite said it had also altered its plans to move the seven, three-story buildings closer to the center of the site and away from some of the "steeper sloped areas" on the site's outer perimeter. Also, Sunbrite said it would model the planned clubhouse near the proposed pool to resemble the 96-year-old hospital and display some of the old building's artifacts in the new building. Judd Rocciola, a licensed traffic engineer hired by Nardella, told the board that as a result of the project's reductions, the traffic during both morning and evening peak hours "basically drops down," a point which many contested. "There's going to be double the cars" that there are now in the area, claimed Bob Tabaka of Paddock Road. "Everybody in that unit is going to have at least two cars. To me, this is very important." "Everything that could be done to compact the site into the center was done," stated Michael Simone Jr., Sunbrite's chief engineer. The plans to limit the luxury housing to those of 55 years-of-age and older—and thus eliminate the threat of rising property taxes since school-aged children would not be among the residents—did not displease the project's objectors. Rather, they objected to the anticipated noise, debris and inconvenience of construction. They also argued for the preservation of the old hospital, which was recently designated a history site by Preservation New Jersey, a private non-profit organization. Neither New Jersey nor the federal government have designated the site as historical, which would preserve it from development. The objectors used the private designation to fuel arguments that better alternatives are available for development of the site. "I personally have some problems with this application," stated Judy Williams of Wildcat Road. Williams is the vice-president of the Franklin Historical Society, which has long disputed other contentions that the hospital building is beyond renovation. "It closed its doors six months ago, and now it's structurally unsound?" she contended. "Could we perhaps work for a different use for that property? Could we step back and say ‘what's the rush?' Could we step back and see what's better for this town?" "This retaining wall is not what I want to see," stated Lisa Wilmoth of Hospital Road, her voice shaking while displaying a photo of the rustic scenery leading from her home toward the hospital property. "It's detrimental to my property value. Nothing they plant is going to block that out." Some of the project's supporters, including former mayor Ed Allen and current Mayor Doug Kistle, stepped forward to support it, citing the anticipated tax ratables would be beneficial to the borough. But soon after zoning board chairman Paul Crowley announced his intention not to vote in favor of granting the variances, Sunbrite withdrew its application and said it would instead seek a zoning change. "What it means is that the applicant has withdrawn it, so there won't be a vote," explained board attorney Glenn Gavan. "They can go to the borough council and ask that the zoning be changed to make this permissible. Then they wouldn't have to come to the zoning board." Crowley, shortly before a vote would have occurred, contended that Sunbrite was effectively seeking a rezoning from the board, which is "frowned upon" by municipal land use laws. "It's a board of adjustment," Crowley later told The Advertiser-News. "They should follow the master plan and the ordinances, and what they were asking for was above the ordinances and above the master plan that I thought was out of line. An applicant has the right to come to the zoning board. That doesn't mean the zoning board has to give it to them." If, as expected, Sunbrite does forward its request for a variation from the master plan to the governing body, Kistle said the appropriate steps would be followed. "We will refer it back to the planning board for their recommendations to the mayor and council," Kistle explained. "The master plan is only a plan. Now we have to face the facts today. We are being introduced to age-restricted requirements in this town. "We need to decide whether or not we want all this (age-restricted) housing in this town. And if we do, we need to change the ordinance accordingly." Virginia Littell, the chairwoman of St. Clare's advisory board, said the hospital would not depart from its intentions to work with Nardella, whose final closing on the purchase of the property is believed to hinge on whether or not his project can be built. "We're going to go forward," Littell said. "We're going to sell the property. We will honor our contractual agreement with Mr. Nardella, because he has continued to act in good faith with our institution." "We really thought we had a good shot tonight," Simone commented. "Jerry has actually gone to as many neighbors as he could. When do you see a developer doing that?"