Three new homes will replace historic Hester Poole house in Metuchen

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METUCHEN – It came down to team trees or team sidewalk as the Planning Board considered the application for 101 Rose St. in Metuchen.

The decision left borough Planner Chris Cosenza struggling to find a balance. Board members were also struggling to come to a consensus on whether or not to approve the application to build a sidewalk around existing large trees or not. In the end, team trees won.

“I’m sorry that we’re divided,” Planning Board Chairman Erick Erickson said after the vote during the virtual Planning Board meeting on July 16. “We certainly have a lot of work to do in the future because these are important issues for the community.”

After about three hours of applicant testimony and board and public comments, board member Lynn Nowak made a motion to approve the application without a sidewalk. Board member James Griffin amended the motion to build a sidewalk around the trees.

The board split the vote for the amended motion with board members Griffin, Linda Koskoski, Richard Green and Erickson voting “yes” for the amended motion and board members Nowack, Alan Grossman, Ellen Clarkson and Jonathan Lifton voting “no” for the amended motion.

Board Attorney Robert Renaud said the amendment fails with a split vote. The board then voted on the initial motion with board members Erickson, Nowack, Grossman, Clarkson and Lifton voting “yes” for the initial motion and Board members Griffin, Koskoski and Green voting “no” for the motion.

Steven Tripp, of Wilentz, Goldman & Spitzer, Woodbridge, attorney for the applicant, Fox & Foxx Development, LLC, presented the proposal.

The applicant proposes to demolish the existing home on the site, create a three-lot subdivision of property located at 101 Rose St. at the corner of Rolfe Place and construct three single-family homes with attached garages on each lot.

The proposed new lots will range in size from 7,620 square feet to 9,342.5 square feet.

The property contains approximately 25,000 square feet, or 0.58 acres, and is currently occupied by a vacant two-story dwelling, detached garage, the remains of an in-ground swimming pool, two paved driveways, brick patio and concrete and paver walkways.

Tripp said the existing home on the site is in extremely poor condition. He said the three proposed lots are conforming and meet all the requirements in the R-2 zone.

The plans show new sidewalks constructed along the entire frontage of Rolfe Place. The applicant requested the board consider the payment of 75% of the estimated cost of the sidewalks, in lieu of construction of the sidewalks for the preservation of significant street trees on Rolfe Place that would be adversely impacted, or would have to be removed entirely, if a sidewalk were to be constructed. The requested alternative was proposed for only Rolfe Place.

The request sparked debate among board members and the public. Sidewalks are along only one side of Rolfe Place.

Koskoski, council liaison to the Planning Board, said without the proposed sidewalk it creates a hardship for people with accessibility issues.

“Now they have to get to the other side of the street,” she said, noting the Borough Council and Mayor Jonathan Busch have been committed to creating an accessible network.

Councilman Jason Delia said a payment in lieu of sidewalk program is for the rarest scenario.

“We have adopted a Complete Streets policy in 2013,” he said. “Part of the Complete Streets policy received by the board should be part of the decision making process to make sure we’re accounting for and building complete streets for our community.”

Residents who live on the street and in the area understood the call for sidewalks, but most were in favor of keeping the grown trees, noting they help with noise and drainage in the area.

Many residents shared concerns of drainage in the area. Tripp, who said they believe the proposed swale drainage system is sufficient for the area, said a potential sewage problem in the area is a municipal issue and the borough is aware of the situation.

Councilman Todd Pagel said trees and pedestrian safety are his two favorite topics as former chair of the Shade Tree Commission, council liaison to the commission.

“It’s a tough decision the board has to discuss and make,” he said.

Pagel suggested building the sidewalk in front of the trees on the flat area. He said a sidewalk can be used for generations to come. He also noted Fox & Foxx has been phenomenal with putting money into the borough’s tree fund when they take down a tree.

Hester Poole House

The borough proposed a possible historic marker for the site due to the historic significance of the home. Tripp said the applicant has no issue for the borough placing a marker at the site.

The house at 101 Rose St. was the Hester Poole house, sometimes known as the Isaiah Rolfe House, constructed in 1850.

One of Metuchen’s large early estates, it became home to Hester Martha Hunt Poole, a writer, poet, cultural critic, artist, and progressive agitator for women’s rights, and her husband Cyrus O’Poole, a lawyer, in 1889, according to the Metuchen-Edison Historical Society.

In 1925, Poole was one of 10 women to be honored by the Susan B. Anthony Foundation as one of the most important founders of the National Council of Women in 1888.

Resident Pamela Brown said it’s unfortunate what has happened to the “wonderful historic house,” which had become run down from previous owners. She said she is happy to see some development on the site, but said the proposal of new construction homes will change the look of the area.

Griffin said the proposal, although conforming, will look nothing like the ranch and split level homes in the neighborhood.

Resident Colin Power said it was unfortunate the borough is losing a piece of history. He urged the mayor and council to put in more protections for historic homes going forward.

Discussions by municipal officials regarding creating a historical preservation ordinance date to the late 1980s, but no ordinance was ever adopted.

In 2018, the borough revived discussions about creating an historical preservation ordinance, which became heightened with the demolition of two 19th century homes on High Street and 59 Graham Ave., known as the David Graham Thomas home built circa 1850.

The proposed ordinance would afford a historical preservation committee an opportunity to look at and review home/building addition proposals on homes that have been deemed historic, according to Nancy Zerbe, chair of the borough’s historic preservation committee.

The council is also in discussions to expand the sidewalk network in the borough through an ordinance.