At Monday's meeting of the Howell Zoning Board of Adjustment the table was set for what could be an extensive and contentious hearing for a hotel at the intersection of Route 9 and Northwoods Place.
Applicant Leonard Solondz told board members he was not able to secure a major brand for a hotel on Route 9 until there was some assurance the application would be approved.
"No one wants to engage until they know that the town is willing to accept a hotel use on this site," he said. "Past history on this site has given everyone a moment's pause."
Zoning Board Chairman Stephen Stephen Meier said granting such an assurance was unlikely.
"That's a hard thing for the board to overcome, considering approval of something that we don't really know what we're getting," he said. "We want to make sure whatever comes in is going to be viable."
During questioning from his attorney, Solondz said he has been involved in finding a use for the property since 1988 and has made several proposals over that time that have been denied by the township's boards. This latest application, he said, takes into account reviews and questions that arose during previous applications.
Solondz said the current application calls strictly for a four story, 109-room hotel, a 200-seat restaurant and a 400-seat conference and banquet facility.
"I listened to what the zoning board came back with in terms of feedback and what the township is looking for in terms of having a conference center that offered banquet facilities and a restaurant," he said. "I thought this would be responsible."
Even before the current application reached the board, steps had been taken to prepare it for a hearing. Meier said he had approached Board Engineer Jack Mallon with the idea of moving the entrance and exit onto Northwoods Place rather than Route 9 or nearby Route 195. Discussions with the applicant, the DEP and the DOT took close to a year before the needed approvals for the plan were given.
As for the design of the hotel itself, even with no operator signed on it was based on "design criteria used for national operators," according to Solondz.
"We're not working in a vacuum or shooting in the dark," he said. "We don't want to waste anyone's time."
During his testimony the applicant also discussed other ways the property could have been used that would not have required variances from the zoning board including building another shopping center on Route 9.
"I don't know that this is something the town would want or really need at this point," he said. "I don't think it is the highest and best use of this site."
He said office space is also an option for the space but he believed the hotel would be in everyone's best interests.
"It meets what I believe is a need in this municipality," he said. "I believe it will go a long way in attracting business and attracting travelers. And I would hope it's designed in such a way that it's a real benefit to the township of Howell."
Zoning Board members and professionals requested the applicant submit an updated traffic study that would include alternatives to the hotel proposal.
"This is a very big issue for the town," Meier said. "It's going to be a very hot issue for the town. We want to make sure whichever way the board votes is based on the information that you put in front of us."
The hearing for the application is scheduled to continue on March 25.