Editor’s note, 8/12/15, 9:55 a.m.: we have added quotes by Greg Lembrich clarifying his position on the appeal and the Post Office project.
The Maplewood Planning Board hearing to review and approve the site plans for the proposed Post House redevelopment began with a bit of a bang Tuesday night.
Before commencing the hearing, planning board counsel Michael Edelson said the board had only days ago been informed that the Village Keepers – which had previously filed and then dropped a suit against the town, the Maplewood Village Alliance and the project’s developer – had filed an appeal of the MVA board’s recent approval of the plan.
Village Keepers’ attorney Richard S. Schkolnick requested the planning board postpone the hearing until the board addressed VK’s assertion that the building’s owner must demonstrate financial hardship before being allowed to demolish the current Post Office and construct a new mixed-use building.
In addition, VK is seeking to have Mayor Vic DeLuca and Township Committeeman Jerry Ryan, who both serve on the planning board, recuse themselves from any decision involving the developer’s plan.
Andy Norin, the attorney representing Maplewood Redevelopers, LLC, “took issue” with items raised in the letters, said Edelson.
Because of what he called the late timing of the appeal, board chairman Tom Carlson decided to move forward with the site plan hearing, and to address the issues raised in the VK’s appeal at the board’s September 8 meeting.
VK board member Fred Profeta told the planning board it was a “wise decision” to schedule the future meeting. However, when Profeta began to discuss in more detail the issues in the appeal, Carlson cut him off.
“Fred, I don’t want to discuss this right now,” he said, noting that those issues would be addressed at the September meeting.
Planning board member Edward Bolden asked why a member of a private group was allowed to question the planning board’s decision. “Isn’t this [under] the planning board’s purview?” Carlson said yes.
In an email to The Village Green, Profeta disagreed, saying Village Keepers had “official status” because it had filed the written appeal. “Any ‘affected party’ is entitled to do that, but no one else did. And some of the other groups would have nothing to appeal from, since they agree with the Alliance result.”
VK chair Dirk Olin said in an email the group was “gratified that the [planning] board is moving ahead with careful and considered deliberation on how to handle” the issues raised in the appeal.
“The reality is that nothing of this iconic and complicated nature has come before this body in years, and we are hopeful that it will examine all appropriate angles with its customary due diligence and fairness,” said Olin.
The hearing proceeded with a detailed presentation of the site plan by the architect, David Minno. Norin said the developer is seeking “minor, technical deviations” from the redevelopment plan.
Minno went over a list of more than 20 such deviations, which included those related to the building’s height, setbacks, and design elements. Planning board members asked specific questions regarding many of the deviations.
Due to the lateness of the hour, the meeting was adjourned before the presentation ended and the board agreed to continue the site plan hearing at a special meeting on Monday, August 31 at 7:30 p.m.
In an August 9 letter to the board, Paul Surovell of Village Facts and nine other Maplewood residents called VK’s allegations of conflict of interest regarding DeLuca and Ryan “preposterous” and said no legal basis exists that would warrant their recusal. DeLuca and Ryan are appointed to the planning board as a matter of state law.
Surovell said in an email that he was pleased the board moved ahead with the site plan hearing and called the decision to hold the special August meeting “well-advised, given the large number of issues to be discussed.”
However, he said the board should defer consideration of VK’s requests until after the site plan review is completed at the end of the September 8 meeting or at the following month’s meeting.
“The Planning Board should not allow the handful of individuals of the Village Keepers to obstruct the business of our town of 24,000 residents.”
Asked his opinion of the Village Keepers’ appeal, Greg Lembrich, the Maplewood Township Committee candidate who was endorsed by the group and whose campaign was managed by Profeta and another VK board member, said because the planning board has in effect agreed to a fresh review of the issues VK has raised, an appeal would be “redundant.”
Lembrich later clarified that the appeal would be redundant “if the PB hears all of the evidence and testimony presented before the MVA and considers the same issues presented before the MVA (including, but not limited to, the demonstration of financial hardship).”
Although he still has concerns about the Post Office project and the process that led to the proposal, “significant improvements have been made to the design in response to public input” and the process has become more transparent.