Narrow vote results in defeat for Shake Shack in Freehold Township

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FREEHOLD TOWNSHIP – An applicant’s plan to build a Shake Shack fast casual restaurant on Route 9 north did not pass muster with a majority of the Freehold Township Planning Board when the matter came to a vote on June 7.

Following a presentation by representatives of Leemilt’s Petroleum Inc. to construct the Shake Shack on the site of a former Getty gas station at 4431 Route 9, two votes were taken by the board.

The first vote, following a motion made by board member Margaret Jahn to direct the board’s attorney to draw up a resolution granting variances that were requested by the applicant, failed in a 4-3 vote. Board Chairman Rich Gatto and board members Leon Bruno Jr., Rob Kash and Apryl Kurtz voted “no.” Board members Robert Shortmeyer, Patrick Coburn and Jahn voted “yes” to grant the variances.

The second vote, following a motion made by Gatto to direct the board’s attorney to draw up a resolution denying variances requested by the applicant, passed in a 4-3 vote. Gatto, Kurtz, Bruno and Kash voted “yes” to deny the application. Coburn, Jahn and Shortmeyer voted “no.”

The resolution of denial will be memorialized with a vote at a future board meeting.

Leemilt’s Petroleum Inc. sought preliminary and final major site plan approval to construct a 3,514-square-foot Shake Shack on Route 9 north on a parcel that is also bordered by Craig and Pond roads.

Leemilt’s Petroleum was requesting conditional use variance relief to construct a restaurant with 84 seats where 125 seats is the conditional use requirement for a family style restaurant in the Corporate Multi-Use Development 3/A zone. Other variances related to the property were also being sought by the applicant.

The applicant was represented by attorney John Giunco. Professionals who testified on behalf of the applicant said the existing structures at the site of the former gas station would be demolished. Access to and from the Shake Shack was proposed from Pond Road. There would be no access from Route 9 north.

Planner Andrew Janiw testified on behalf of the applicant.

“This is an active retail corridor … and your zoning recognizes that,” Janiw said, noting that nearby commercial uses include a bank, a lighting store, a gas station with a convenience store, an automobile dealership and a large shopping center.

“This is a challenging site. It is undersized for the zoning district. … We have worked hard to scale the project for the district. Given the constraints of the site, we have made it fit,” he said.

“We will provide a modern facility with a desirable, upscale (operation). Shake Shack is certainly compatible with the (nearby) uses and the highway location. Economic development is encouraged in your master plan. Shake Shack is on point with (a) high quality use in your master plan,” Janiw said.

The key question, according to the planner, is “Can the lot accommodate the deviation? The only deviation is that we are providing fewer seats than what is required in the ordinance. I don’t see fewer seats having a negative impact on the zoning plan or the master plan. (Shake Shack) will create a high quality retailer for the township. This is a great repurposing of the gas station.”

During public comment, resident Haven Franklin expressed concern that the traffic pattern associated with the gas station would be different than a traffic pattern associated with a restaurant. She asked the board members to consider the potential for accidents where Craig, Pond and East Freehold roads meet at a signalized intersection.

“I like the idea of Shake Shack, but there is no margin for error at this site,” Franklin said.

Resident Neal Herstik spoke about the intensity of traffic at the intersection of Craig, Pond and East Freehold roads and the impact a restaurant would have at that location. Herstik’s comments led to a discussion of that aspect of the application with Corey Chase, a senior project manager with Atlantic Traffic and Design, who represented the applicant.

Resident Randy Schlesinger said she lives and works near the site proposed for the Shake Shack. She said she did not believe the site was suitable for the proposed use. Schlesinger said she was concerned there would be accidents at the intersection.

Giunco summed up his presentation by saying the application “has to be judged in a careful manner.” He noted that for several reasons, several hundred square feet of the former gas station property that are in Manalapan could not be used by the applicant in conjunction with the Shake Shack proposal.

Giunco said providing fewer seats than what is required by Freehold Township’s ordinance made the application more useful. He said off-site traffic is not an item on which the board could judge the application.

“This is a busy intersection under the existing conditions,” he said. “The traffic report’s conclusion is that (the restaurant) is an improved condition over the gas station. There will be no traffic from the site in the morning (when the restaurant is closed). The entire (road network at the location) is under the jurisdiction of the state Department of Transportation (DOT)).”

Giunco said the property could revert back to a gas station if the application was denied.

Following Giunco’s summation, board members had an opportunity to comment on the application.

Jahn said she visited the site on a Saturday and did not see an issue with traffic. She said a portion of the vehicles leaving Shake Shack would turn left onto Pond Road and head to Route 9 north without entering the intersection at Pond, East Freehold and Craig roads.

“This will be an improvement to our community,” she said.

Gatto said the applicant was requesting more than a dozen bulk variances for items such as setbacks and the size of parking spaces. He said there would be a reduced level of service at the intersection of Pond, East Freehold and Craig Roads.

“Even with the redesign of that intersection which was recently completed by the DOT, the best level of service is ‘D’ (on a level of service scale of A to F). I find some of the variances requested are detrimental to the public good,” he said.

Kurtz said she travels through the intersection every day “and traffic there is a nightmare. The applicant is trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. I do not feel the site is suitable to this application. It is a small, small piece of property.”

The board members’ comments were followed by two votes; first, the vote that failed to direct the board’s attorney to prepare a resolution granting the variances, and second, the vote that directed the board’s attorney to prepare a resolution denying the requested variances.