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Vol. LXIV, No. 15
 
Wednesday, April 14, 2010
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Westerly Road Designs Get Mixed Reviews

Dilshanie Perera

Representatives of Westerly Road Church came before the Princeton Regional Planning Board last week to make their case for constructing a new church building on Bunn Drive in an area known as Princeton Ridge.

With the meeting room completely packed with congregants, environmental advocates, advisory board members, and residents, Planning Director Lee Solow observed that the new 43,943 square foot church would sit on an 18.5 acre parcel of land with Herrontown Road to the north and Bunn Drive to the west.

The proposal involves a one-story edifice that could seat 520 people and accommodate 11 classrooms, administration space, a multipurpose room, and a nursery. Additionally, 220 parking spaces and a detention basin on site are proposed to meet parking and storm water management needs, Mr. Solow said.

While approximately 500 trees would be lost to development, 100 of those trees are already dead, and 50 are declining, Mr. Solow noted, adding that the applicant is proposing the planting of 213 new trees and over 700 shrubs.

The church is amenable to placing a conservation easement on the site, noted attorney Dan Haggerty of Stark and Stark who was representing the church at the meeting.

Members of three major advisory bodies to the Planning Board, namely the Site Plan Review Advisory Board (SPRAB), Environmental Commission, and the Shade Tree Commission weighed in with their recommendations for changes to the proposed plan. Each cited the environmentally sensitive nature of the site as warranting a close look at storm water management and habitat disturbance, and a need for the minimizing of the total impact of the construction.

SPRAB Chair Bill Wolfe highlighted three of the 37 comments the advisory body had sent to the Planning Board, saying that the group was asking that the Board not approve the Westerly Road Church application until it demonstrated through soil tests that recharge requirements could be met.

The advisory board also advocated for preserving as much of the woodlands as possible, as well as for a potential two-story building and structured parking to be built to reduce the overall footprint and impervious surfacing.

“It would not be prohibitively expensive,” Mr. Wolfe said, noting that a two-story church building would “save half the cost of the roof and foundation.”

While tiered parking may be 30 percent more expensive, according to SPRAB calculations, “it would cut the size of the disturbance in half,” he pointed out.

Township Shade Tree Commission Chair Lily Krauss seconded the assessment above. “A more environmentally sustainable design on the proposed parking lot should be developed,” she said, urging for a more creative proposal. The commission offered alternate ideas for plantings, like installing rain gardens replete with native plants instead of traditional tree islands, and using permeable materials.

Wendy Kaczerski of the joint Environmental Commission weighed in against the plan as proposed. If construction were to occur on the Ridge, she said that the application should significantly reduce impervious cover and tree removal, redesign the church building, place a conservation easement or deed restriction on the remaining undisturbed open space at that site, and incorporate green building measures.

Township Storm water Consultant Joe Skupien said that he was comfortable with the storm water mitigation measures the church proposed in the development application.

Further complicating matters are state sewer service area regulations. Township Engineer Bob Kiser explained that the site that Westerly Road Church endeavors to build on is currently within a sanctioned sewer service area, but that the state recently asked all counties to update their sewer service area lists, which determine sections of municipalities where sewer lines may be put into the ground, with environmentally sensitive areas disqualified from that space.

Westerly Road Church would be required to obtain a sewer service permit from the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, Mr. Kiser noted. Denial of the permit would preclude building on the proposed site.

Mr. Haggerty pointed out that the church’s congregation had outgrown its present site in the Township, and “cannot feasibly expand at the current location.”

Their search for a new space began about two years ago, Mr. Haggerty said, and in the interim, the church had developed a plan “that is in full compliance with the zoning ordinance and the land use code.”

“Of course the church has been respectful and will continue to be respectful,” Mr. Haggerty noted, referring to the environmental sensitivity of Princeton Ridge. “We’re engaging with achieving an ecological balance between people and nature.”

Senior Pastor for Westerly Road Church Matt Ristuccia, who has been a pastor at the church for 25 years and a resident of Princeton for 32 (“not including the undergraduate years at Princeton University”), said that on average 450 adults attend one of the two services held by Westerly Road Church on Sundays. “We had 598 adults and 100 children on Easter Sunday,” he added.

Emphasizing the church’s commitment to the town, Mr. Ristuccia urged the Planning Board to broaden its understanding of ecology and ask ‘What makes a life-giving community?’” Allowing the church to relocate to Bunn Drive would strengthen the community at large, he suggested. “The tradeoffs are well worth the outcome.”

Associate Pastor John Beeson said that the proposed design of the church was “driven first and foremost” by how to better serve the church’s congregants and children. He pointed out that the design uses less than half the floor area ratio that the location is zoned for.

In the new location the congregation could gradually grow to 700 people, Mr. Ristuccia said, which is aligned with the church’s goals. Beyond that, they would look into other satellite locations.

Architect Michael Hughes of Mann-Hughes Architecture said it would be difficult to stack the spaces to create a two-story edifice. In the proposed designs, the church is screened from the street by the elevation and tree plantings, and is designed to give off a “traditional church feel” and create individual smaller mass groups that are all connected in the interior, he said.

Vice Chair of the Planning Board Wanda Gunning cautioned that this was a “very ambitious plan for the Ridge,” while Chair Peter Madison noted that while Westerly Road Church had complied with the zoning requirements, the Princeton Community Master Plan also designates the proposed site as “environmentally sensitive.”

The hearing concluded halfway through the proceedings at 11 p.m., with the testimony to continue at the Planning Board meeting on May 20 at 7:30 p.m. at the Township Municipal Meeting Room. Members of the public are welcome.

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