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FAIR HAVEN: SKEPTICISM OVER BANK PLAN

fh-bank-plan-051016-1-500x237-4713487An architectural rendering of the bank, proposed for the former site of a Sunoco station.  (Photos by John T. Ward. Click to enlarge.)

By JOHN T. WARD

fh-bank-plan-051016-2-220x165-7437667Like a customer at a balky ATM, a regional bank will have to try again after Fair Haven’s planning board raised numerous objections to a proposed bank branch Tuesday night.

Though the matter didn’t go to a vote, all but one board member cited misgivings about Investors Savings Bank’s plan for a branch on the site of a former River Road filling station.

The Sunoco station, at the corner of Cedar Avenue, closed in December, 2011. Since then, its canopy, pumps and tanks have been removed, along with petroleum-contaminated soil, said John Taikina, of M&M Realty Partners of Piscataway, which has a contract to purchase the site and plans to lease it to Investors.

A groundwater contamination plume that travels 200 to 300 feet northeast from the site is “dissipating through natural attenuation,” according to tests at monitoring wells, Taikina told the board.

The bank proposed a 2,700-foot walk-in branch with three drive-thru lanes — one for ATM service —  and 22 parking spaces, where 14 are required. A shallow roof dome that’s an architectural signature for Investors requires a variance, because domes are only allowed on houses of worship under borough ordinance, Taikina said. Variances are also needed for setbacks and signage.

Over the course of almost three hours of testimony by an architect, a traffic engineer, a bank executive and two planners, the proposal met a growing list of objections, beginning with the traffic flow. Why, board chairwoman Joan Jay asked, must there be two driveway openings on River Road, as well as one on Cedar Avenue?

“We think it’s a better solution for us,” said Taikina. “Access and egress to both streets is one reason you want to buy a corner.”

But “River Road has so many ins and outs,” Jay said, citing feedback from residents in a recent survey taken in advance of a Master Plan review that there are too many.

Taikina said the traffic circulation plan was partly dictated by a change from an earlier plan, moving the bank building closer to River Road, in response to requests from borough officials.

In later testimony, planner Christine Nazzaro Cofone said her client “could design out that variance” by moving the building about 12 feet south, but was seeking the variance “because we want to be sympathetic to the planning goals of the borough.”

Board members praised the location of the building, but weren’t sold on the curb cuts out front.

“The design template is really right off the shelf for a state highway” rather than a small town, said board member James Banahan.

“We’re going to ask you to think very hard about how badly you need that access off River Road,” Jay told Taikina.

Board members also objected to the appearance of the building, the height and interior illumination of a freestanding sign, the dome, the number of service lanes and the bank’s plan to have the ATM accessible 24 hours a day.

Resident William Heller echoed that last concern during a public comment session.

“You’re acting as enablers for people who need to score drugs at night,” he said.

“I understand that this is your boilerplate building,” board member Alison Dale told the applicants, “but I don’t believe this belongs in Fair Haven.”

Taikina said he would work with the borough engineer to craft acceptable changes to the plan in time for the board’s June meeting.

 

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