Traffic a key concern in Freehold Township development plan

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By Mark Rosman
Staff Writer

FREEHOLD TOWNSHIP – Concerns relating to traffic were expressed by members of the Freehold Township Planning Board when representatives of an applicant who wants to develop 400 luxury apartments off Route 537 presented their plans to the panel.

Following two-and-a-half hours of testimony on Jan. 26, no decision was rendered by the board on four applications that combine to make up Phase I of an application to develop the Bellemead tract.

The 77-acre Bellemead property lies between Route 537 at a jughandle that provides access to Freehold Raceway Mall via Trotters Way, and Route 9 south.

Planning for the project dates back almost a decade.

Attorney William Mehr represented the property owner, MACW Freehold, as well as Freemall Associates and Roseland Freehold.

Freemall Associates is part of the application because property at Bob’s Stores on Trotters Way is proposed to be used for the construction of a new reverse jughandle that would provide access from Route 537 westbound to the apartment buildings on the Bellemead tract. Testimony indicated that a number of parking spaces at Bob’s Stores will be lost if the new jughandle is constructed.

Roseland Freehold is the entity that is proposing to build Liberty House at Freehold, which consists of 400 luxury apartments in six four-story buildings, plus a 10,000-square-foot clubhouse and a three-story parking structure on 21 acres of the tract.

The Route 537 corridor near Freehold Raceway Mall, in the vicinity of the Route 33 bypass and the Route 9 interchange, is one of the busiest stretches of road in Freehold Township and members of the board focused much of their attention on how a major development project will impact a situation that is already challenging to motorists.

Phase I of the project does not include the development of any commercial space, according to Mehr, who said the construction of commercial space could be proposed in Phase II.

Previous discussions of the project with Freehold Township officials indicated it would include 115,000 square feet of retail/commercial space in six buildings of 6,000 to 15,000 square feet, plus a 40,000-square-foot “boutique” grocery store.

The concept plan also included a 5,000-square-foot bank/office building, a neighborhood commercial area with a 148,700-square-foot warehouse club or master retailer with a gas station, a 52,000-square-foot hotel and 20,000 square feet of restaurant space in three buildings.

None of those commercial uses are part of the Phase I plan that is currently before the Planning Board.

Mehr said because the applicants have already received municipal approval for a General Development Plan – which is a concept for the Bellemead tract – and because the Phase I application is in compliance with municipal regulations, the board members are obligated to approve the proposals that are now before them.

Township Committeeman Anthony Ammiano, who sits on the board, took issue with that assertion. He said the proposal for residential development “is a major concern to me. We are being asked to approve residential elements so that this is not just a residential development in a farm field.

“The residents of these apartments will be Freehold Township residents and their quality of life and safety is in our hands,” Ammiano said, adding that other improvements to the property may or may not be completed in the future. “There is a traffic problem today, there will be a traffic problem in the future when this is built.”

Mehr said the planned improvements at the intersection of Route 537 and Trotters Way will be made with safety in mind and will accommodate the vehicles.

Ammiano said he is not in favor of splitting the residential and commercial aspects of the project into phases.

Tawny Farmer, a civil engineer who works for Freehold Raceway Mall owner Macerich, said plans call for Trotters Way to be extended through the Bellemead tract. She said the extension will connect Route 537 to Route 9 south in front of a bank and a building that houses a campus of Brookdale Community College.

That new intersection would only permit right turns in from Route 9 south to Trotters Way and right turns out from Trotters Way to Route 9 south, Farmer said.

One application before the board calls for the subdivision of the Bellemead parcel into five lots; four development lots and one conservation lot. Farmer said no variances are being requested by the applicants. The question of the possible presence of an underground fuel tank on the property remains open and will be addressed through additional investigation, she said.

Planning Board Chairman Rich Gatto said that during their deliberations, board members will consider whether the proposed development will create an “adverse impact” with respect to the Bellemead property and the surrounding area. Gatto said the applicant’s representatives will have to address the issue of “adverse impact.”

Testimony regarding planned road improvements was provided by Scott Kennel of McDonough and Rea Associates, Manasquan. Kennel said he has been involved with the project since 2009.

Kennel described the planned addition of turning lanes at the intersection of Route 537 and Trotters Way, the proposed construction of the reverse jughandle on the Bob’s Stores property and the planned expansion of the existing jughandle at Trotters Way. The jughandle expansion will allow more vehicles to stack in the jughandle rather than backing up on Route 537, he said.

Kennel’s presentation focused solely on Phase I of the project – the construction of the 400 apartments – because Phase II has not been defined. Questions from board members as to whether accommodations can be made for traffic that would be generated by the addition of commercial development on the Bellemead tract could not be answered.

Testimony is expected to resume at the board’s 7 p.m. meeting on March 16.