By JOHN T. WARD
After a four-month detour over legal issues, a hearing on a plan to open a Dunkin’ coffee shop in Fair Haven resumed Tuesday night, just as hot as before.
For three hours, opponents predicted traffic and safety problems at the Acme-anchored shopping center on River Road where the shop would operate. The site’s principal owner called that scenario “ridiculous.”
The plan for a new Dunkin’ shop — reflecting a branding change by the national chain — has proven to be a powder keg. Meetings on the proposal have drawn large turnouts, and posts on Facebook got so heated that the administrator banned commenting on the topic.
Convening at the Knollwood School Tuesday night to accommodate another crowd, the planning board spent nearly all of the session focused on traffic impacts. Of repeated concern was the impact of cars queuing up on-site as customers attempt to make a left turn onto westbound River Road. Dangers to kids enroute to the towns’ two schools on foot or bicycle were also cited.
Opponents contend the shop, to make its profit margins, will have to draw large numbers of motorists from outside the area to a shopping center they say can’t handle them.
But consultants hired by Dan Hughes, managing partner of the LLC that owns the center, contend that the coffee-and-doughnut store primarily will draw customers from Fair Haven and passersby who already use and know the center.
They pointed to a site plan approved by the same board just two years ago, before Hughes and his partners embarked on what he said was a $4 million makeover.
Board Chairman Todd Lehder, however, said the hearing was, in part, “to decide how the 2017 site plan works with this tenant.
“At that time, we were not talking about specific tenants. We were talking about beautifying the center,” he said. “And the board’s analysis of how the existing improvements work with this particular tenant is obviously of the utmost concern.”
Michael Bruno, the attorney for the shopping center, responded that the property had “an abundance” of adequate parking, with 250 spots, 70 of them near the Dunkin’ space, and years of demonstrated safety.
“Listen, if you’ve got great suggestions, we’re open-minded to hearing them,” Bruno said. “But to reconfigure the entire site for a 1,700-square-foot tenant — I don’t think that’s what the [zoning ordinance] contemplates, nor do I think that’s what the Municipal Land Use Law contemplates.”
Kurt Donaldson, of Battin Road, said the addition of “a sugary glazed doughnut” would draw more kids into the center, raising safety issues. Amy Dixon, of Poplar Lane, spoke about her difficulty exiting onto River Road, even early in the morning after dropping off mail at the post office in the center.
“This concern that you’re hearing from the community isn’t going to be resolved just by saying it’s an existing condition and it’s always going to be like this because it’s always been like this,” said Tracy Cole, one of two borough residents who have hired their own lawyers to fight the plan. “The intensification of the this location causes concern, and we’re asking you to address it.”
Hughes, though, pushed back on some of the residents’ claims.
“I don’t want to be disrespectful, but the idea that this shopping center cannot handle a Dunkin’ Donuts is ridiculous,” he said. “It can handle it without any problem,” he said, citing ample parking, multiple entrances and exits, and the varying times at which stores in the center would be busy.
“I know a lot of you don’t want a Dunkin’ Donuts because you don’t think it’s right for the town,” Hughes continued. “And there happen to be a lot of people who like Dunkin’ Donuts who have reached out to us. Unfortunately, most people who are for something don’t come to meetings.”
The shop would be operated by Dominic Sequeira, of Lincroft, who with family members also owns Dunkin’ shops in Red Bank, Shrewsbury and Lincroft.
The session ended without a vote, and the hearing is expected to conclude July 16 with pubic comment and a possible vote.
Meantime, the borough council is in the midst of reconstructing an ordinance banning fast-food restaurants in town, after the one in place since the early 1970s vanished from the town’s code book.
Any such ban, however, would not affect the Dunkin’ plan, which by state land use law is protected because the application preceded any changes.