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Judge Backs Variance for Jazz Club; Zoning Board Set for Final Review

Matthew Hersh

A jazz club proposal for the former Mike's Tavern site on Bayard Lane has overcome yet another obstacle as a state superior court judge rejected a neighborhood-based attempt to block a variance that will allow for a 10,750-square-foot restaurant. Superior Court Judge Linda Feinberg issued her decision last week after hearing the case on February 25. The suit, filed against the Princeton Township Zoning Board of Adjustment last July, charged the board and the applicant, Hageman Lane resident Stephen Distler, with violating state municipal land use law by not notifying all property owners within 200 feet of the proposed development on the corner of Birch Avenue and Bayard Lane.

Mr. Distler did contact residents within 200 feet of the former Mike's Tavern, but allegedly did not contact those living within 200 feet of the proposed satellite parking area, the former Stefanelli's Automotive Garage, a property Mr. Distler owns just south on Bayard Lane at the corner of Leigh Avenue. But that element was withdrawn in the face of the lawsuit. The removal of the satellite parking element, however, had no bearing on Judge Feinberg's decision, as she reviewed the application for the proposed club, "Astons," 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.

Plans for Astons, designed by Triumph Brewing Company architect Terence Smith, feature a three-level building that would house a 159-seat restaurant serving lunch and dinner seven days a week and that would hold regular jazz performances.

The principal litigants argued that the withdrawal of the off-site parking was used as a loophole to avoid the foundation of the lawsuit, but the court dismissed that claim. "The court rejects the position that the amendment to the final site plan is a ploy to limit notice and avoid the parking needs of the proposed jazz club," the decision read. "The revision to the site plan made no difference: if parking was to be included in the site plan, we would have given notice, and if it weren't, we wouldn't give notice," said Robert Casey, zoning board attorney. "That's the beginning and the end of it." With no offsite parking, Astons will feature an all-valet parking system during dinner hours. Parking would be provided for a maximum of 165 patrons and valets could stack cars in, rather than accommodate each car with an individual space.

Calls and e-mails to Duffield Place resident David Goodman, a principal in the suit, were not returned. Mr. Goodman and his wife were one of nine litigant families. With the suit apparently out of the way, the zoning board is now faced with a final review of the application on March 14.

The minimum lot size of that zoning district, S-2, is 32,670 square feet. Astons' proposed lot size, a combination of three lots to be consolidated, is just under 25,000 square feet. Mr. Distler is expected to request another variance that would allow him to place a 10-foot-tall sound shield around the periphery of the parking lot in the rear. The S-2 zoning currently allows for six-foot fencing.


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