It’s like placing a motel at the foot of Yosemite’s magnificent monolith, El Capitan.
This is how an expert witness from an opponent described plans for apartments next to the historic Vail Mansion in Morristown on Thursday.
In an almost four-hour virtual planning board meeting – the seventh hearing on this request for 126-136 South Street. – Members also:
Let’s start with South Street.
126-136 SOUTH STREET.
The main event of the evening featured two familiar adversaries: Developer Lawyer Franck Vitolo, and Maplewood Planning Consultant Peter Steck, testify for an opponent.
First, the new wrinkles:
Developer South Street Holdings Morristown LLC scaled its app from 39 apartments to 36, apparently eliminating the need for offsite parking. The footprint of the project would remain the same; the space of the eliminated units would be reallocated to expand other apartments.
This reduction in the number of apartments reduces one unit of the developer’s affordable housing obligation to five.
Pressed by the President of the Council Stefan Armington and mayor Tim dougherty, who both sit on the board of directors, the developer has agreed to build these five affordable units on site. A prior commitment, to transfer two units to a nonprofit organization across town via a payment of $ 250,000, amounted to an unfair deal for the developer, argued Armington.
Okay, back to the main event.
“Nice to see you again, Mr. Steck,” said Vitolo, beginning his cross-examination.
In Morris Township last year, Vitolo prevailed for the redevelopment of the abbey, despite opposition from Steck. Three years earlier, Steck testified for the Plaza headquarters against the Cambria hotel application in Morristown. Vitolo won that one too.
This time Steck was hired by the owner of the Vail Mansion condo. Issa Oweis for drilling holes in the plans of luxury apartments next door. Steck got right to the point.
Comparing apartments to a motel in El Capitan, he said the views would be great for new renters – and ugly for everyone. Light escaping from a lower level parking lot will spoil the community’s fun enjoying Vail’s large lawn, he said.
Additionally, Steck said, the density of the project exceeds the city’s zoning, which limits the property to 30 units. He argues that a deviation is necessary from the more stringent zoning board of directors – a place the developer tried to avoid via a donation of land Steck called a “contrivance.”
The property covers just over an acre. Shave it below an acre and the developer can claim an additional 10 units, a “density bonus” meant to encourage urban development.
In the hope of achieving this, the developer offered scraps of land to the city last winter for a “Pocket park”. Now the offer has passed to the state Department of Transportation, which oversees South Street.
DOT has no practical use for these chocks; the giveaway only benefits the developer and could trigger scrutiny by the state’s historic conservatives, according to Steck.
“It doesn’t make sense,” he said.
Built by AT&T mogul Theodore Vail during World War I, the Vail Mansion is a contributory building in Morristown Historic District, listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1973.
For 74 years, the mansion served as Morristown town hall. Luxury condos were erected in 2008 on either side of the mansion, which has become home to the upscale Jockey Hollow Bar & Kitchen six years later.
Steck targeted apartment decks that would exceed Vail’s property line.
The developer has secure easements for this arrangement of the Vail condo association, one of the first opponents of the project. But if that acreage is counted, Steck said, the project exceeds an acre whether or not the DOT accepts the plots offered.
Vitolo pointedly asked Steck if he thought he knew Morristown zoning better than the town planner Phil abramson, who led the update of the city’s master plan and approved this request. (Vitolo and Abramson also worked together on the Abbey app in Morris Township.)
“I don’t know,” Steck replied. “This is not a competition.
Saying that he needed time to digest Steck’s arguments, Abramson asked him for a written report.
Considering this request is complicated, conceded Abramson. Through legal “gymnastics,” he said, the city still retains some control over Vail’s property.
Things heated up when most of Vitolo’s efforts to challenge opponents were cut short by the council attorney Lisa John Basta and president Joe Stanley.
To question the motivations of Oweis to fight against this project, Vitolo tried to quote a Morristown Green Interview. But John-Basta ruled that this was irrelevant to the cross-examination, as Steck’s testimony never addressed the objector’s intentions.
Vitolo continued to pressure Steck over his interactions with Oweis, an engineer. Stanley cut him this time.
“He may have been hired because Mr. Oweis liked his mustache,” said the chairman of the board.
Vitolo then accused Oweis’ lawyer, Tom jardim, to contact DOT officials to denigrate the proposed donation of land. “You should present this to the board, sir,” Vitolo asked.
Jardim, who had said unmoved that Vitolo was not on his Christmas card list, laughed at the question. John-Basta reminded Vitolo that Jardim was not a witness and that the problem was the density of the project.
The eighth meeting is scheduled for late January – in person at city hall, if the pandemic abates, Stanley said.
BAKOD HOLDING CORP.
The pandemic was cited as a reason to extend an October 2018 approval for 39 apartments with retail space at 45 Morris St., next to the Grasshopper Off the Green tavern. The project was not built.
Bakod Holding Corp. is the applicant. His address has been listed as Matt O’Donnell’s now closed law firm in Morristown, and his holdings include his shore home in Sea Girt.
O’Donnell, the former board attorney and municipal tax appeals lawyer, was not mentioned on Thursday. Bakod’s lawyer, Paul Jemas, only spoke to thank the board for the extension. The vote was unanimous; the mayor recused himself.
Planning board approvals are valid for two years. Applicants can request up to three one-year extensions. Bakod got his first in October 2020.
Board of directors John Inglesino explained that a condition of Bakod’s approval required that the construction of the building be coordinated with that of a nearby parking garage proposed by the Morristown Parking Authority. This garage is on hold during the pandemic, Inglesino said.
O’Donnell’s legal situation is likely to complicate Bakod’s ability to proceed.
He faces up to three years in prison when sentenced next month. Charged with hundreds of thousands of dollars in penalties and restitution, he cannot sell any property he owns without first obtaining state approval, according to his plea agreement.
Authorities say O’Donnell conspired to bribe public officials for legal work. He pleaded conspiracy to commit misconduct on the part of a company official and conspiracy to falsify public documents, stemming from his company’s contracts in Mt. Arlington and Bloomfield.
In cooperation with investigators, O’Donnell recorded video and audio conversations to involve five public figures in Morris and Hudson counties.
HOTEL DE CAMBRIA: “IT WORKS THE HEAD AGAINST COVID”
COVID-19 has also been cited as a barrier to hotel and office projects.
A 116-room Cambria hotel approved in 2017 for Market and Bank streets is just a hole in the ground. And it can stay that way, unless the board extends its approval long enough for the developer to strike a deal with a potential buyer.
It was the speech of lawyer Frank Vitolo, this time on behalf of the Morristown hedge fund manager that of Daniel Khoshaba Sunstone LLC Hotels.
Vitolo said his client spent more than $ 5 million on approvals and demolition; he even paid $ 400,000 to reserve spaces in a Morristown Parking Authority garage. He withdrew, the lawyer said.
“He ran headlong into COVID. There is no worse industry in COVID than hotels, ”said Vitolo.
He asked for an extension until April 2022, so Sunstone can complete negotiations with a potential buyer.
Without the extension, Vitolo said, the property will revert to zoning that does not allow hotels or multi-family dwellings. Then, “you’ll have a hole in there for a while.”
But the board wanted proof of an imminent deal. The mayor was skeptical if a hotelier would respect Sunstone’s price at this time. He expressed concern that an extension would allow the developer to obtain a building permit and leave the property vacant for decades.
President Joe stanley asked Vitolo to return next month with a testimonial to back up his claims.
PARK VIEW PARTNERS LLC
Vitolo also represents Park View Partners LLC, a Short Hills developer seeking approvals to replace the old New Jersey Monthly building near the Green at 55 South Park Place with 39,000 square feet of high-end office space and approximately 3,300 square feet of retail detail.
He said he would withdraw the request soon if he couldn’t connect with the Morristown Parking Authority.
The project requires around 100 parking spaces. Vitolo said he had been trying for months to make a deal to use the MPA garages.
But the parking authority has refused to make such commitments until it determines how many employees of its customers, working from home during the pandemic, are returning to their Morristown offices.