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Residents' Lawsuit Aims to Reverse Jazz Club Approval

Matthew Hersh

Eight Princeton families and homeowners have filed a lawsuit with the New Jersey Superior Court challenging the Princeton Township Zoning Board's approval of variances that would allow a jazz club to be built on the lot currently occupied by Mike's Tavern at the corner of Bayard Lane and Birch Avenue.

The suit follows an April 28th 5-2 vote approving two variances that would effectively begin the process of placing "Astons," a proposed 159-seat jazz club, on Bayard Lane. A total of 57 parking spaces would be required. The applicant, Township resident Stephen Distler, submitted a plan to the zoning board that would put 14 of those spaces on-site, with 43 parking spaces located at the current site of Stefanelli's Automotive garage. Mr. Distler is the contract owner of the garage.

But plaintiff attorney Lawrence Wohl, of the Princeton firm Archer & Greiner, said the approval violates New Jersey Municipal Land Use Law, because it did not notify all property owners whose properties lie within 200 feet of the proposed development.

The application approved by the zoning board specifically addressed the Mike's Tavern site and an adjacent residence, but, according to Mr. Wohl, it did not properly address the future usage of the Stefanelli's site.

Because the Stefanelli's site was not directly part of the specific application, residents within 200 feet of that location were not notified. Mr. Wohl said those residents should have been notified as well.

The suit goes on to say that the zoning board did not properly address issues regarding impact to the neighborhood. In a statement, the plaintiffs claim that members of the board were more concerned with the particular use of the structure than with its impact on the surrounding neighborhood.

"We felt that our voices weren't even heard," said Birch Avenue resident Penelope Baskerville, a member of the zoning board who had recused herself from all board deliberation regarding this application.

Charles Goerner, a Bayard Lane resident, said that if the suit is successful, he would like to see the application submitted "in full," including the site plan and plans for parking. "We want to take the process and turn the clock back," he said, adding that the zoning board is "truly out of touch" with the sentiments of the neighborhood.

"We just don't think a jazz club belongs in a residential neighborhood," he said.

But Carlos Rodrigues, chairman of the zoning board, said that the issue of residential noticing will have to be determined by the court. If it is determined that notice was not properly given, the zoning board would lose jurisdiction over the matter, effectively resetting the entire process. It is up to the applicant, and not the zoning board, to issue notice to potential neighbors impacted by a particular application.

Regarding the substantive basis of the zoning board's decision, Mr. Rodrigues said that the board cannot turn the the applicant down based solely on anticipated impact.

"It's a tricky application," Mr. Rodrigues added, because the zoning board "is just making a determination on the use, and not the effect."

After zoning board approval, the application underwent a 45-day "completeness review" period to determine whether the proposal is fit to appear before Princeton's Site Plan Review Advisory Board. The application, however, was deemed incomplete on July 23. Such determinations are common with zoning board proposals.

The proposed site is in the Township's commercial service district, or S2 zone. Other Township enterprises in this zoning designation include STS, Texaco, Mobil Oil, and the Princeton Body Shop. Permitted uses of that area under current zoning regulations include retail stores, bakeries, storage warehouses, and public utility structures. Uses for that zone also include those related to heavy trucking and bus transportation, storage of inflammable material, and the storage, handling, sale and delivery of lumber, coal, mason materials, grain and feed, and solid and liquid fuels.

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