Montgomery Residents & Zoning Board Dunk Dunkin'
By Anna Reinalda | December 2, 2021
The Montgomery Zoning Board denied an application to build a Dunkin' Donuts restaurant with two drive-thru windows proposed for the busiest intersection in town (corner of routes 518 and 206). Fourteen Montgomery residents spoke at the three-hour virtual zoning board meeting on November 23 and presented a petition with 112 signatures denouncing the application.
Attorney Jeffery B. Lehrer attempted to make a case for his client, Bernardsville resident Anton Nader, who has been attempting to build the Dunkin’ in Montgomery Township since 2011. (Dunkin' Still Trying to Build at Shuttered Gas Station Site in Monty).
Nader owns at least 57 Dunkin’ franchises in New Jersey, according to The New Jersey Law Journal. (See article about Nader's 2014 lawsuit against the Dunkin' corporation.)
The plan for the Skillman location would have directed traffic to enter the drive-thru from Route 206 South, and to exit onto Route 518. This would lead customers to loop roads, which would be built close to the Tapestry, Montgomery Crossing, and Hillside communities, ultimately leading back to Route 206.
Glenn Buttafucco of Bedford Drive said, “People are going to be trying to get out of there any which way they can … when little kids are out there getting on buses. I would oppose any development that would send commercial traffic into the neighboring residential areas.”
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Rona Lee Sands of Bristol Court said, “Our community has a lot of people who don’t see well and don’t hear well and it’s not good to have a lot of traffic rushing through the development trying to get back to 206 or 518 to get back to work. I think this would be absolutely terrible for our community.”
Many zoning board members had concerns of their own. Because the property is in a highway commercial zone, it is supposed to have at least one acre for this type of establishment to be allowed, according to professional planner Christine Cofone of Red Bank, who was also hired by Nader. Being only one half acre, the lot is undersized for commercial use, leading board members to question if its small size will pose problems.
Montgomery Township Zoning Board Vice Chairman Matt Fedun, a member of Montgomery Fire Station 45, has a vested interest in how the property would handle emergency vehicle access.
Nader’s traffic engineer Craig Peregoy told Fedun that the plan gave "plenty of room" for a fire truck to drive on to the site.
Only when Fedun asked directly about one specific corner of the lot did Peregoy admit that with the current drive thru and parking plan, a full parking lot and cue line would not allow a fire truck to drive around the building.
“Well, hopefully, if the building’s on fire, they’ve already left,” Peregoy said sarcastically.
Fedun was not amused. “I drive a fire truck almost every day of the week, and people panic when a fire truck is around. They’re not going to get out of the way, they’re going to stop. This is a bad situation,” he said.
Chairman Steve DeRochi commented that, “The problem that’s plagued this application from the very beginning is there’s just too much stuff on it,” DeRochi said, alluding to the lot being too small.
With the intersection in question being already overburdened, board members wondered what the addition of drive thru traffic would do to the situation.
Joseph Calamenari of Portland Drive pointed out that the traffic report upon which the application is based is outdated, having been done in 2013.
“You’re basing your traffic report on a study that you don’t have,” Calamenari said. “There are 440 houses in our section that weren’t there when your study was done.”
Lehrer did not take kindly to Calamenari pointing this out, and shouted at him.
“What the hell are you asking about a 2013 report for? What does it matter?” Lehrer asked.
Bill Hackett of Acadia Lane, a 34-year resident of the area, argued that, regardless of the age of the traffic reports, the intersection is simply not equipped to take on more traffic complications.
“In the late 1990s … we were told that the intersection was, by the board’s assessment, a failed intersection,” he said. “It is still a failed intersection.”
Not dissuaded by the time lapse, Dunkin's profession planner Cofone maintained that the Montgomery Township Zoning Board was obligated to stand by the nine-year-old traffic study.
Andrew Davis of Portland Drive presented the petition with 112 signatures opposing the building of a Dunkin' on the under-sized lot at the busy corner. He also requested the application not be approved based on old information.
“By granting this approval, you are simply going to allow this applicant to exacerbate a [bad] situation,” he said. “I’m not satisfied, as a member of the public, that this zoning board, which was constituted seven years after the previous one, is bound at all by what the previous board did. I think the board needs to reconvene and [re-]consider.”
Lehrer and Peregoy argued that the drive-thru was not going to contribute to any traffic issues the intersection might face, citing that at five minutes per order, customers would simply breeze in and out.
“If the drive-thru is backed up, people go to the next one,” Lehrer said. The Dunkin' plan calls for two drive-thrus. “They’re not going to wait.”
Glenn Buttafucco of Bedford Drive was unconvinced. “The success of a Dunkin’ Donuts is based upon volume,” he said. “I challenge anybody to go to a Dunkin’ Donuts and see how many cars are there between 7 and 8:30 in the morning. The place is packed. That area is going to become an area of nothing but problems. There’s going to be many accidents. I can almost count on the police being there on a daily basis.”
The prospect of illegal left turns out of the proposed Dunkin’ drive thru onto County Route 518 was a concern for zoning board member Paul Blodgett. “My opinion is that the site itself creates the conditions in which the illegal turns will likely take place,” he said.
Blodgett suggested that, not wanting to take the time to use the loop roads to regain access to 206 legally, drive-thru users would make dangerous choices to make an illegal left-turn in their haste.
DeRochi concurred. “It just seems to me that those illegal left turns to get back on to Route 206 are going to be the waterloo for that intersection,” he said.
Dunkin' Holding the Town Hostage
Jeff Sands of Skillman said that Nader, who has owned the lot since 2011, is holding the property hostage until he gets his way. The property now hosts a broken-down building on the weed-infested corner lot at the gateway to Montgomery Township.
“It appears as if we’re almost being blackmailed by the applicant. Keeping this property in a really significantly blighted condition all these years,” he said, noting that the lot, which poses an eye sore in a prominent part of town, is inconsistent with the quality Montgomery residents expect.
At the start of the meeting, professional planner Cofone had read off the four conditional use requirements, two of which the application violates, but attempts to mitigate with D variances. The two requirements are as follows:
First: “A drive thru window shall be permitted only if the subject restaurant is part of a shopping center.”
Second: “A drive-thru window shall be permitted only if the subject restaurant does not have direct driveway vehicular access to a public street.”
Ending the more than three-hour-long meeting, a weary DeRochi called for a vote to determine whether these variances would be allowed.
“I’m really torn because I’ve spent a lot of time trying to optimize this application to make it as good as it can be, but I’ve always felt that it was overreaching to put that much development on that little site,” DeRocchi said. “This applicant has always had the ability to collaborate with the surrounding owners to create a master plan that would have actually gotten him more ... than what he’s getting by holding out for his own.”
All board members voted to deny, and the variances were not granted.