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Residents Opposed To Proposed Club Move Ahead With Suit

Matthew Hersh

Despite apparent setbacks, eight Princeton families and homeowners opposed to conceptual plans for "Astons," a proposed restaurant featuring live jazz music, have vowed to continue their legal battle to have the restaurant proposal reconsidered or even overturned.

Astons, which would be located on the site of the former Mike's Tavern at the corner of Bayard Lane and Birch Avenue in Princeton Township, was granted a variance in April, and has been the target of litigation since July, when neighboring residents charged that the Princeton Township Zoning Board of Adjustment violated New Jersey Municipal Land Use Law by not properly notifying all parties within 200 feet of the proposed facility.

Would-be Astons proprietor Stephen Distler, a Hageman Lane resident, was also targeted in the suit.

At that time, however, a major component of the residents' lawsuit focused on the proposition that overflow, off-site parking would be located in the next block, at Stefanelli's Automotive Garage near the corner of Leigh Avenue and Bayard Lane, which Mr. Distler also owns. Opposed residents said that while Mr. Distler had informed residents within 200 feet of the former Mike's Tavern, he did not send notices to residents within 200 feet of Stefanelli's, thus allegedly violating municipal land use law.

The applicant, Mr. Distler, has since withdrawn his bid to create off-site parking at Stefanelli's, which appears to answer a major element of the residents' lawsuit. But the case is not closed, residents said.

A hearing with Superior Court Judge Linda Feinberg, scheduled for February 25, will look at the Astons application as it was approved by the zoning board – with the off-site parking.The lawsuit also charges that the zoning board did not consider neighboring residents' objections to having a restaurant with live music on that site.

A reported December 10 out-of-court settlement between the litigants and the applicant that would have returned the application back to the zoning board for reconsideration did not occur, zoning board attorney Robert Casey said.

"We thought that was unfortunate," said David Goodman, a Duffield Place resident and one of the litigants in the lawsuit. "A settlement would have expedited the matter and would have helped speed along the resolution, but that's not to be the case."

As for Mr. Distler's withdrawal of the off-site parking element from the application, Mr. Goodman said that component was only part of the problem, but did not address the "core" issue. "We're very much concerned about the proposed use of Mike's Tavern," Mr. Goodman said, adding that Astons would make "extravagant" usage of a location that formerly served as an "old man's bar."

Referring to the proposed "Astons" as a "night club," Mr. Goodman said the restaurant has to be perceived as such if there are to be shows letting out as late as 1 a.m., as was indicated in the zoning application.

But Mr. Distler objected to Aston's being termed a "night club," saying that such a designation implies that something other than jazz could be performed on-site.

"The use variance specifically allowed us to use jazz music, it did not allow us to do rock music," he said. "It is jazz and jazz-related music.

"So for them to say that it is a Œnight club,' or whatever that implies, is incorrect."

The purpose of the zoning designation, Mr. Distler continued, was to make sure that if the proprietor were to consider departing from the jazz genre, he would be unable to do so. "If I want to depart [from jazz], or if anyone wants to depart from that, they have to go back to the zoning board and the neighbors will have the opportunity to offer their input again," Mr. Distler said.

Additionally, the zoning board is required to focus on the use of a proposed site and not as much on the anticipated impact, said Carlos Rodrigues, chairman of the zoning board.

Represented by attorney Lawrence C. Wohl of the Princeton firm Archer & Greiner, the eight families involved maintain, however, that the zoning board should weigh in the potential impact if a use variance is granted.

"You can't turn a blind eye on the impact this could have on the neighborhood," Mr. Goodman said.

Tentative restaurant plans call for a 6,000- to 7,000-square-foot facility with 150 bar and dining seats. Mr. Distler is said to be working with Terence Smith, who designed the interior of Triumph Brewery on Nassau Street.

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