Lembrich, Township Exploring Options for Preserving Character of Maplewood Village

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Maplewood Township Committeeman Greg Lembrich says he is committed to exploring options for maintaining the retail character of Maplewood Village, while Maplewood Mayor Vic DeLuca has directed Committeewoman India Larrier to follow up on potential historic designation of the Village with the Maplewood Historic Preservation Commission.

The remarks from both men came at the April 19 Township Committee meeting and followed on an “impassioned” meeting between township officials and merchants, building owners and residents on Monday, April 18 at The Woodland. The informal meeting on Monday was held to discuss the tenancy of the new mixed-use development for which both Starbucks and a bank have signed letters of intent.

At the Township Committee meeting on Tuesday, Lembrich first noted the “great attendance” of the merchant meeting and said it yielded “a really valuable exchange of ideas” as well as “spirited discussion.”

Lembrich noted that one aspect of the conversation that was particularly useful was the opportunity to share information and correct “misunderstandings about existing township ordinances.” He said that many people in town are under the impression that there is an ordinance prohibiting chains: “That’s incorrect.”

Lembrich pointed out that there is an ordinance outlawing fast food chains in certain zones of town but even that is “narrower than some people think” with the the definition of fast food being “a majority of cooked food prepared prior to being ordered” — a definition that would “obviously not prohibit” businesses like The Able Baker or Bagel Chateau. “It’s a common sense definition,” said Lembrich. (At the merchant meeting, Mayor DeLuca said that if the town attorney found that Starbucks fit the definition of fast food in the Maplewood ordinance, it would not be allowed in town.)

Lembrich said he noticed another misconception about the power the Township Committee has to affect the approval of businesses and tenants in town. “We can’t legally veto [a tenant] if the business meets existing ordinances,” said Lembrich. He noted that the Township Committee has exceptional power regarding liquor-based business since it acts as the local ABC board.

Lembrich also talked about what the Township Committee possibly could do:

“As discussed yesterday, there are legal options to amend existing ordinances or create new ones, but you have to keep in mind that there are tradeoffs,” and the Township Committee “will need to determine if there is community buy-in.”

Lembrich cautioned that any new rules would need to apply generally and cannot respond to individual businesses.

“We can’t make them up and change them as we go along based on if people like or don’t like a proposed business,” said Lembrich, who added that the TC could explore expanding the ordinance that limits nail salons from being located within 500 feet of each other to other kinds of businesses to avoid an over-concentration of certain businesses.

Lembrich also said that he is researching other legal options available to Maplewood and that he was finding numerous, though not common, precedents for “formula business ordinances”  that specify zones and “find legal ways to define what businesses will not be allowed in those districts that largely excludes franchises or chain stores.” Lembrich said that although he is committed to the research, he was not committing to supporting any such ordinance as yet.

“I will commit that I’m going to find out more” and “look around the country to see what others are doing to protect the retail character of their towns,” said Lembrich.

“I haven’t gotten far enough in to know if I would support [it] and I know we would have to consider that we are restricting landlords … and potentially forcing them to accept reduced rents.” Lembrich said any potential ordinance would need the input of citizens, local businesses and property owners.

Lembrich said he would likely report back to the Township Committee in June.

“We want what’s best for Maplewood,” said Lembrich. “We want people to continue to bring ideas to us. I’m personally going to put a lot of time into this.”

Meanwhile Mayor DeLuca asked Committeewoman Larrier to follow up on research into designating the Village as an historic district at the next meeting of the Historic Preservation Commission (the HPC meets the first Wednesday of the month; Larrier is the TC liaison to the HPC).

“Let us know where we are with that and anything we can do to kickstart those conversations,” said DeLuca to Larrier.

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