ALLENTOWN – Residents of Allentown spent an hour during the evening of April 20 asking questions to the land use attorney who is representing borough officials as they seek to mitigate the impact of commercial development in neighboring Robbinsville.
The Borough Council meeting that night was held in a virtual manner during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. Dozens of residents signed in to view the meeting. Several municipal officials were in Borough Hall and some officials were at remote locations.
Attorney Michele Donato joined the virtual meeting to answer questions about the Mercer Corporate Park on Robbinsville-Allentown Road, which is Church Street in Allentown and is also designated as county Route 526.
The property in Robbinsville on which warehouse distribution centers are proposed to be constructed backs up to a residential zone along Pondview Drive in Allentown.
Donato said the Robbinsville Zoning Board of Adjustment has granted a use variance to the applicant proposing to construct the warehouse distribution centers. A use variance was required because that use is not permitted at the location where it is being proposed.
The attorney said the applicant must return before the Robbinsville zoning board to seek site plan approval. She said when that occurs, Allentown residents will be able to comment on the proposal before Robbinsville officials.
Mercer Corporate Park “is not a completed application,” Donato said.
Donato fielded numerous questions from Allentown residents. Among the topics discussed were whether borough officials can challenge what is taking place in Robbinsville; the potential environmental impacts of the large-scale development; if the warehouse distribution centers will result in more trucks passing through Allentown; and whether residents can challenge what is happening in Robbinsville on their own.
Mayor Thomas Fritts has said Allentown officials and their professional representatives have been negotiating with the developer of the Mercer Corporate Park in an attempt to gain concessions that would protect the borough. He said filing a legal challenge against the developer’s application would likely mean the negotiations would end.
“No one on the Borough Council supports the corporate park,” the mayor said.
Fritts said he would support any residents who want to challenge what is taking place in Robbinsville.
Councilman Dan Payson said, “We are between a rock and a hard place and we have to do as much as we can within the guidelines. We are absolutely opposed to the continued development of warehouses. We have to continue to fight in a way that can be beneficial to Allentown. With the hand we were dealt, (negotiation) is the best option for Allentown. This is a strategic fight.”
Donato said she could not reveal details of what Allentown’s representatives are negotiating with the developer of the Mercer Corporate Park.
She told residents “there is a bias in law in favor of the development of property, which makes it tough to challenge development.”
Donato said Mercer Corporate Park “was a well put together development.” She explained that the developer worked with Robbinsville officials to satisfy the municipality’s concerns.
In making a case for a use variance, “the developer was able to show (the zoning board) that the site had particular suitability for the proposed use,” the attorney said.
Allentown, she said, does not control development in another municipality.
During a previous council meeting, Fritts told residents it was no surprise the members of the Robbinsville zoning board granted the use variance to the applicant because warehouse distribution centers are what Robbinsville officials have zoned portions of their community to accommodate.
Carmela Roberts, who is Allentown’s borough engineer, was also present for the April 20 virtual meeting. She discussed storm water issues related to the Mercer Corporate Park site. Roberts said in the final analysis, the developer will meet all of the applicable storm water requirements.
In addition to comments made by Fritts and Payson, Borough Council President John A. Elder III, Councilman Michael Drennan, Councilman Robert Strovinsky, Councilwoman Martha Johnson and Councilwoman Erica Torsiello voiced their support for the strategy the borough is pursuing and for following the advice of Allentown’s professionals, which in addition to Donato and Roberts includes Borough Attorney Greg Cannon and Andrew Feranda of Shropshire Associates, who is advising the borough on issues related to traffic.