It has been a little more than a year since the Howell Zoning Board of Adjustment narrowly to build a Quick Chek convenience store and gas station at the corner of Route 33 and Colts Neck Rd.
Since that time the zoning has changed in the area making those kinds of projects a permitted use in the HD-3 zone. At Thursday night's Planning Board meeting a similar plan was approved by the board. The proposed plan also includes a traffic light at the intersection which both boards said was a priority for the project.
The application was heard for the first time in July when the applicant presented information about the 5496 square foot convenience store and the 10 fueling stations. Thursday's meeting focused on the traffic adjustments being made to the intersecting roads. The application also includes 74 parking stalls for the building.
Charles Olivo said his firm had conducted a traffic study of the area as part of their work on the project on the southeast corner of the intersection. Olivo said his firm did their analysis from 7 a.m. to 9 a.m. on a weekday and 4 to 7 p.m. on a weekday evening to see what the conditions are like during rush hour traffic.
Calling it an "extensive review" of the intersection Olivo said his firm looked at crash data from the intersection stretching from 2002 to 2009. "Generally the large majority of accidents that are occurring at that intersection today are right angle accidents," he said. "Those are typically eliminated by the implementation of a fully actuated traffic signal."
Based on the analysis Olivo said there are two driveways being proposed for the project. The first is on Colts Neck Rd. which he described as a full movement driveway. For Route 33 he said they were proposing a right in, right out movement.
There would also be a left turn in movement with a "new left turn bay," at the site. The left turn lane would allow traffic to flow around a car waiting for a break to enter the station. Left turns directly onto Route 33 west would not be allowed based on the proposal. On Colts Neck Rd. heading north there will also be a right turn lane for the intersection with Route 33. That change, he said was based on requirements from the county and the state Department of Transportation.
Olivo said his analysis also showed that he did not believe there would be a dramatic increase in the traffic on the road from what is already there. "What this does is lessen the traffic that's actually new to the intersection itself," he said. "The idea here is that the Quick Chek with gas would be built at the intersection and draw the majority of its traffic from the roadway system as it exists today."
Overall Olivo said he was pleased with the proposed changes. "These intersection improvements are significant and they will significantly better the operation of the roadway and the intersection from a number of different parameters," he said.
Another major question raised at Thursday's meeting was the way traffic would flow on the site itself. According to the townships ordinance access aisles should be 30 feet while the Quick Chek application had sizes between 27 and 28 feet. Olivo said he believed the proposed sizes would be "adequate for the operations that are proposed here." He added, "I think the spirit certainly of the ordinance is to provide better circulation than 23, 24 feet that is still used as an industry standard before use such as this."
Under questioning by Board Attorney Ronald Cucchiaro, Olivo confirmed that the Quick Chek would not open until the road improvements were completed and the traffic light had been installed. Councilman Robert Nicastro asked that the light be completed before ground was broken on the project but the applicant's attorney Henry Kent-Smith said it was more efficient to complete both parts at the same time. "We'll start the signal when we start our site construction," he said.
Olivo said installing a new light at the intersection like the one proposed would take 30 to 45 days while Kent-Smith said the Quick Chek portion of the construction is estimated to take six months so the two should overlap well.
During the closing arguments attorney Ronald Gasiorowski who represented owners of a nearby gas station said he believed the waivers the applicant was looking were not needed with a few changes in the proposed plan including the size of the convenience store.
"You have control over the size of the building, and when you do that that means you also control some of the traffic coming onto the site," he said. "I'm not coming before you seeking relief. I'm coming before you asking you to apply your ordinance. It's really as simple as that."
Gasiorowski said on the other hand the applicant is seeking relief for items like the drive aisles, the basin on the property and plantings. "All of this is driven by one goal and that is to preserve the size of the building and my answer to that is he should have done one of two things. He should have bought a bigger piece of property or built a smaller building."
For his part Kent-Smith said the application does comply with the new ordinance. He said the "deviations," they were seeking were related to "design standards." He added, "This is about balance, and the balance that this applicant has sought continuously from the inception of this application is to to try to the maximum extent possible create the public balance," he said. "That's why we put a 70 foot buffer here to the residents across the street from Colts Neck Rd. To the maximum extent possible we want to make sure we preserve that green area."
By adding the three feet to the drive aisles and adding pavement Kent-Smith it would have "chewed into that buffer." However he said he believed it was better to have more green space than pavement.
Following the vote Chairman Paul Boisvert said he felt good about the final vote. "As far as we're concerned, as long as the zoning change stands we've met everything that they needed to meet."
He also said the traffic signal was an important part of the application. "No light, there would be no gas station," he said. "It's something that you've got to take into consideration too. The extra infrastructure that they were willing to put in along with their building. That's at no cost to the taxpayers and obviously that will make everything safer for everyone in general but also their neighbors at Equestra."
Boisvert also said that when it came to things like the drive aisles as long as the township's fire officials said it was safe, he believed it would be okay with the waiver. He added that the application before his board was different than the one that went in front of the zoning board because Quick Chek had added an additional parcel of land to increase their property size when building the project.
Councilman Nicastro said the council took into consideration recommendations from the zoning board when they changed the zoning, something that is done on a regular basis. "We believe as the law believes that you should not be zoning by variance," he said. "When something gets denied by the zoning board we get these reports from them and then the governing body has to evaluate to say is this something that fits the master plan and the vision of the town."
He said he did not see the vote by the zoning board as having an impact on the planning board's vote. "Once the governing body in its wisdom decides that something should be in a zone, and makes it a permitted use, then I look at it as it's coming as a permitted use because that's what the vision was and vote on its merits on that basis."
The councilman also said it was good that the road improvements and the light was being done by the company rather than the township. "It's always a benefit to the taxpayers when we don't have to use taxpayer's money to do improvements," he said. "When an application is coming into our town and obviously there's benefits on all ends, we want to take advantage of it."