The vote, taken at the board's March 7 meeting, followed several rounds of hearings and changes to the site plan for the proposed 1,952-square-foot facility. White Castle has the right to appeal, but whether or not it will remains to be seen.
The board said the application, by White Castle Management Company, did not conform enough to its standards or address issues potentially affecting neighbors’ quality of life.
The board had requested buffers of at least 50 feet between the restaurant site and nearby residences. The site plan, as presented at the March 7 meeting, included buffers ranging from 24 to 10.7 feet. Middletown zoning ordinances do not require 50-foot buffers in all parts of the site, but design standards do in certain spots, such those between parking areas and residential uses, Middletown Planner Jason Greenspan said.
White Castle Engineer Bill Stevens said that some of the plan's smaller buffers would be in a business (B-3) zone and compliant with zoning standards. “This overall (50-foot) buffer requirement does not apply,” he said. Stevens cited other changes he said were beneficial, including enlarged basins, an enlarged crosswalk moved closer to the restaurant to accommodate the handicapped, enlarged egress radius to accommodate emergency vechicles and a bigger median.
But Planning Board member Kevin Settembrino was not impressed. “There’s one change I don’t see,” Settembrino said. “It’s the increase in the buffer distance. I’m not sure if I stressed that enough. We stressed at the last meeting that it is very important.”
Settembrino questioned the engineer about the feasibility of moving parking areas to accommodate the buffering. Stevens, after some hesitation, said it was a feasible, yet less convenient plan for customers.
“If you were to provide all parking on the east (side of the lot), would you be able to provide a 50-foot buffer? Settembrino asked. “Can you not provide parking on the other side (of where it is shown in the plan now) and, perhaps, provide a tram?”
“Yes, we could,” Stevens said. “But the convenience factor is not good."
An obstacle to providing the desired buffers and a functional plan, the applicant’s representatives said, is the shape of the lot. The shape is odd because the property owner, Middletown Partners, headed by Tom Stavola, of Colts Neck, and Michael Piperno, could not acquire all the lots needed for a more rectangular, optimum configuration.
Planning Board members grilled Stavola on his attempted acquisition of two lots in particular, for which there was no official appraisal of “fair market value” and no formal contact of the residents concerned. One of those property owners is Shannon Ecklof, who led the neighbors’ fight against the White Castle plan.
"The board did the right thing," Ecklof said after the meeting. "I wish I could say that this is over but for the next few weeks we have to worry about White Castle appealing the board’s decision. It would be a shame that the taxpayers would have to bear the legal cost to defend the township."
Ecklof said the opponents' attorney is confident that White Castle lacks grounds for an appeal but added, "that probably won’t stop them given the history of their actions to date. The front door was slammed but we will have to see if they try to backdoor this in."
What do you think? Will White Castle be back with an appeal? If so, will you applaud it or fight? Tell us in the comments section below.