Taco Bell decision in hands of Manalapan zoning board members

MANALAPAN – March 18 could be the night when the future of a proposed Taco Bell restaurant is decided by the members of the Manalapan Zoning Board of Adjustment.

Yum & Chill TB Holdings, LLC, is proposing to demolish a Shell gas and service station at the corner of Route 9 south and Taylors Mills Road and to construct a Taco Bell.

Initial testimony regarding the Taco Bell was presented during the board’s July 16 meeting and additional testimony from representatives of the applicant and from members of the public have been heard on various dates since that initial meeting.

Yum & Chill TB Holdings is seeking preliminary and final major site plan approval with bulk variances and use variance relief to permit the demolition of the Shell station and the construction of a 2,578-square-foot Taco Bell.

The Taco Bell is proposed to have dine-in and drive-up service. The 0.8-acre property isΒ  owned by PMG New Jersey, LLC, and is in Manalapan’s Office Park 3 zone. The construction of a fast food restaurant and drive-up window is not permitted in the OP-3 zone and that is why the applicant is before the zoning board.

The Taco Bell hearing resumed at the board’s Jan. 21 meeting, which was conducted in a virtual manner due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. The applicant has changed its legal representative and is now represented by attorney Lawrence Sachs.

Sachs called on Jay Troutman to discuss traffic issues. Troutman reported he had conducted a traffic study at a Taco Bell restaurant at Route 1 and New Road in South Brunswick “to provide more information to the board and the public.”

The South Brunswick Taco Bell is owned by the same applicant that is proposing the restaurant in Manalapan.

Troutman described the South Brunswick location on Route 1 as being similar to the location of the proposed Taco Bell at Route 9 south and Taylors Mills Road in Manalapan.

He said the majority of the vehicles entering and exiting the South Brunswick site do so from Route 1.

During testimony it was noted that the applicant has amended the Manalapan plan to prohibit left turns into the Taco Bell site from Taylors Mills Road at all times. Motorists heading west on Taylors Mills Road who want to reach the Taco Bell would have to turn left onto Route 9 south and enter the restaurant property from the highway under the amended plan.

Planner John McDonough confirmed the applicant is proposing a non-office use in an office zone. He noted the gas station – which is also a non-office use – has operated at the corner since 1970.

Taco Bell “is a good use for this location given the attributes of this site,” he said. “It fits the site selection criteria of a national brand (i.e., a corner location on a main highway).”

McDonough said in his opinion, “the (Taco Bell) site will function safely and efficiently” and that variance relief “can be granted without significant detriment to the public good. Relief is not tantamount to a rezoning.”

The zoning board’s professionals, engineer Brian Boccanfuso and planner Jennifer Beahm, asked questions of Troutman and McDonough and expressed concern with some of their assertions and findings.

Zoning board member Adam Weiss said he was familiar with the Route 1 location of the Taco Bell in South Brunswick and questioned Troutman about the similarities he (Troutman) said existed between that location and the Manalapan property.

Zoning board member Mollie Kamen restated her concern that customers who leave Taco Bell and want to head west on Taylors Mills Road will use Route 9 south to reach a nearby neighborhood and then drive through that neighborhood (Briar Hill Drive, Country Lane, Princeton Drive) to return to Taylors Mills Road.

According to the applicant’s plan, left turns onto Taylors Mills Road would not be permitted from the only Taco Bell driveway on Taylors Mills Road. That access would only permit a right in, right out movement.

Troutman said the situation Kamen described would happen on occasion, but not in a noticeable amount of vehicles.

Shortly after 10 p.m., members of the public had an opportunity to address the zoning board and the applicant.

Resident Tom Brieva lives in the Briar Hill Drive neighborhood. He said traffic already passes through the development and he said he is concerned that situation will get worse if a Taco Bell replaces the gas station.

Resident Steve Cohen also lives in the Briar Hill Drive neighborhood. He said, “I do not feel this (Taco Bell proposal) is a good use of this property. There is a reason why the property was not zoned for a fast food restaurant. I pick up garbage from Wendy’s (also on Route 9 south, next to the proposed Taco Bell) on my street. Taco Bell customers will speed through our neighborhood” and he said there is a potential for more garbage to accumulate with a second fast food restaurant in the area.

Resident Lester Kornblum lives in the Monmouth Heights development across Route 9. He said, “I don’t think we need a Taco Bell at that corner. It is not a good location for a high-volume restaurant.”

Resident Rex Lazewski of Taylors Mills Road expressed concern about Taco Bell customers driving through the Briar Hill Drive neighborhood to return to Taylors Mills Road.

After the public comment portion of the meeting was closed, zoning board Chairman Steve Leviton told Sachs, “No matter what you do, you’ve got a problem with traffic. It’s [Route 9 and Taylors Mills Road] a bad intersection.”

Board member Rob DiTota said the intersection “is a complete disaster.”

Sachs asked the board members not to vote on the application that evening. He said his client may be able to provide additional data in support of the proposal.

The board members agreed to Sachs’ request and carried the Taco Bell application to their March 18 meeting.