Freehold Township Planning Board denies variance for entertainment center


FREEHOLD TOWNSHIP – A developer’s plan to open a 64,000-square-foot recreation/entertainment venue at the Freehold Raceway Mall failed to pass muster with the Freehold Township Planning Board on Feb. 6.

Board members voted 8-0 not to grant a variance the applicant, Round One Entertainment Inc., was seeking. Several entertainment services that were proposed by the applicant are not permitted in the RMZ-1 zone (Regional Mall Zone).

Round One Entertainment was seeking to lease the first floor of the Sears department store and to provide recreation/entertainment services including bowling, dodgeball/futsol, billiards, 3 vs. 3 basketball, video games, batting cages, darts, ping pong, a restaurant and bar with karaoke, and a children’s play zone.

Round One Entertainment was represented before the board by attorney Peter Licata, engineer and planner Cliff Quay, and Steven Takeuchi, the senior construction compliance manager for Round One.

According to a report prepared by the board’s engineer, Tim White, the application for Round One dates to late 2018 and was initially denied by the township’s zoning officer because certain proposed uses were not specifically permitted and were subject to denial.

The Feb. 6 meeting was broken into two parts.

Licata initially appealed the zoning officer’s decision by placing testimony from Takeuchi and Quay on the record. They discussed operational issues for Round One, the types of uses the venue would offer and the type of security measures that would be in place.

Hours of operation would be from 10 a.m. to 2 a.m. and alcoholic beverages would be served on the premises. Testimony indicated that 13,000 square feet of the 64,000-square-foot space would house arcade games.

After listening to Takeuchi and Quay, board member John Bazzurro said, “I think (this proposal) is a stretch under our current zoning ordinance.”

The board’s chairman, Rich Gatto, said, “I would find that the zoning officer was correct in his interpretation (of the zoning ordinance) and I would offer a positive resolution in support of the denial.”

On a roll call vote, Gatto, Bazzurro, Rob Kash, Margaret Jahn, Robert Shortmeyer, Leon Bruno Jr., Apryl Kurtz and Jason Levy voted “yes” and the zoning officer’s decision was affirmed.

Licata then offered a presentation seeking a variance that would have, if granted by the board, permitted Round One to operate at the mall with certain deviations from Freehold Township’s zoning ordinance.

In additional testimony, Quay said he would not make the argument that the proposed use of the space for recreation/entertainment was inherently beneficial to the community, but he did state several reasons why he believed a variance could be granted.

Those reasons included the fact that the use was being proposed in an existing regional mall; that in losing an anchor tenant (Sears), the mall’s owner was attempting to replace a tenant; that the proposed uses were similar to, though not exactly the same, as the permitted uses for the location; that no major modification of the space was necessary to create the Round One business; that Round One would support other uses in the mall; and that keeping the mall as a vibrant location and a continued productive use in the community is important.

“My opinion as a planner is that this (Round One) is a compatible use,” Quay said. The request for a variance “can also be considered under the hardship criteria of the mall losing an anchor store and space going vacant. That (economic impact on the mall) is not the main point, but I believe it is worth mentioning.”

He noted that the mall previously had an arcade and a children’s play area, though neither of those amenities is active at the present time.

It was noted that if the board granted the variance, the plan for Round One would still require review by the Township Committee.

Board members quizzed Quay on various aspects of the application, including the serving of alcohol, parking needs for the recreation/entertainment operation and whether the applicant had considered other sites for the business.

Licata said the applicant is not required to examine other sites as part of its presentation. He said the Round One application before the board was specifically for the former Sears space and not for an outlying parcel at the mall or for a property elsewhere in the township.

The development of the Freehold Raceway Mall is governed by a General Development Plan (GDP) that was put in place at the time the mall was developed in the late 1980s.

Following the conclusion of testimony, Gatto said he believed the Round One proposal was too intense for the proposed location, that the application was inconsistent with the GDP, that other areas in the zone might be more appropriate for the business, that the applicant failed to meet the criteria for the granting of a variance and that Round One was not a true anchor store.

Bazzurro said he, too, was concerned the application was inconsistent with the GDP.

Gatto made a motion for a resolution of denial of the variance and all eight board members voted “yes” to deny the applicant’s request for the variance.

Following the vote, Gatto suggested that Licata may want to meet with the township’s mall committee to review the GDP and to further discuss some of the concerns that were raised while Round One was initially being reviewed by the zoning officer and subsequently being reviewed by the Planning Board.