Lawrence officials continue bid to purchase land near Colonial Lake

Scott Jacobs

Lawrence Township officials cleared one more hurdle in their quest to purchase nearly six acres of land bordering Colonial Lake from Sheft Associates, Inc., effectively blocking a proposal to build an extended-stay hotel on the banks of the lake.

Sheft Associates, Inc., which owns the Colonial Bowling and Entertainment Center at 2420 Brunswick Pike, had proposed building a 123-room extended-stay hotel near the bowling alley.

The proposal, however, drew stiff opposition from residents in the Colonial Lakelands neighborhood on the opposite side of Colonial Lake. The hotel would have meant cutting down trees in the area where it was proposed for construction.

After some negotiating, Sheft Associates, Inc., agreed to sell a portion of the 8.8-acre lot that includes the Colonial Bowling and Entertainment Center to Lawrence Township. The township would purchase 5.9 acres from Sheft Associates, Inc.

Approval was needed from the Lawrence Township Zoning Board of Adjustment to subdivide the 8.8-acre lot into two smaller lots.

Subdividing the parcel into two lots – one that would hold the bowling alley and entertainment center, and a second lot that would be preserved as open space – required several variances. Those variances were approved by the zoning board last month.

Lawrence Township required a use variance, because open space use is not a permitted use in the Highway Commercial zone. The township also needed a variance for lot frontage, because the open space lot has 125 feet of frontage on Brunswick Pike. The minimum lot frontage is 200 feet.

Variances also were needed for the new lot that holds the Colonial Bowling and Entertainment Center, including impervious coverage, rear yard setbacks and parking lot setbacks. The variances were granted by the zoning board.

“This is an atypical situation. It is a unique situation. It is not often that the town comes to the zoning board,” Municipal Attorney David Roskos said.

Brian Slaugh, the zoning board’s planning consultant, said the subdivision is an inherently beneficial use because it will result in additional open space. There is less parkland in the southern part of the township than in the northern part, he said.

Slaugh said a trail may be created that would circumscribe Colonial Lake, linking the neighborhood on one side of the lake with the soon-to-be-acquired land next to the Colonial Bowling and Entertainment Center on the opposite side of the lake.

With the variance approvals granted by the zoning board in hand, Lawrence Township officials expect to close the deal by the end of the year. The 5.9-acre lot will be added to the township-owned Colonial Lake Park.

Soon after Colonial Lakelands residents learned of the proposal to develop part of the 8.8-acre parcel into an extended-stay hotel, they formed a group called Save Colonial Lake. They advocated for Lawrence Township to buy the land to preserve it from development.

Lawrence Township stepped in and offered to buy a portion of the 8.8-acre parcel. The township and Sheft Associates, Inc., settled on a purchase price of $3.65 million.

The agreement calls for Lawrence Township to have the right of first refusal if Sheft Associates, Inc., decides to sell the smaller lot which holds the entertainment center. This means the lot must be offered to Lawrence Township before it is offered for sale.

Funding for the $3.65 million deal will come from several sources, including the Lawrence Township Open Space Trust Fund and the Lawrence Township Conservation Foundation.

Other funding sources include grants from the Mercer County Open Space Assistance Program and the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection’s Green Acres Program.