More than a year after the volume dropped on a highly contentious plan to build a restaurant featuring live jazz music, the Appellate Division of the state Superior Court ruled this month that the Princeton Township Zoning Board of Adjustment acted appropriately in issuing an initial use variance that would have allowed Mike's Tavern on Bayard Lane to be transformed into a restaurant.
While the building application for "Aston's," a 159-seat, 10,750-square-foot restaurant and jazz club, was never officially pulled as a prospective project examined by the Township's zoning department, it was last heard publicly in May 2005 by the zoning board, where the proposal was met by significant resistance from residents of surrounding neighborhoods, leading to a band of neighbors, including one member of the Zoning Board, to sue the board for its decision.
In 2004, the board granted the applicant, Hageman Lane resident Stephen Distler, a use variance to operate a jazz club in the Township's S-2 service and R-9 residential zones. Parking to accommodate the restaurant's clientele would have taken place a block south on Bayard Lane at the old Stefanelli's Garage site. That element of the plan was eventually withdrawn when the lawsuit filed claimed Mr. Distler violated state municipal land use laws by not notifying residents within 200 feet of that property. At the time, a state Superior Court judge rejected the plaintiff's position that the withdrawal of off-site parking was a means to avoid the restaurant's parking requirements. Instead, restaurant organizers envisioned a stacked, valet parking system.
That system had some zoners at the time worrying if a valet parking system would deter guests, leaving them to park on surrounding streets.
The Appellate Court also ruled that the plaintiffs' complaint was filed beyond the 45-day time limit, and that "no legitimate reason for an extension was established."
The restaurant application has been a closed-session item on virtually every Zoning Board agenda since May 2005, but those familiar with those proceedings have said that discussions were merely perfunctory and that the proposal has essentially been in a holding pattern.
The proposed club site, at the corner of Bayard Lane and Birch Avenue, has since been eyed as the headquarters for the Bank of Princeton, a new venture launched by Mr. Distler and other interested investors. That application has been filed with the Zoning Department, though the jazz restaurant paperwork has yet to be withdrawn. It is, however, unlikely that the restaurant option will be pursued.
"Although the use variance is still in effect for the Mike's Tavern site, and we could still revisit the project there, we currently have submitted The Bank of Princeton application and hope to see that approved quickly," Mr. Distler said in an e-mail message, adding that the likelihood of a restaurant occupying the site is slim.
"It just doesn't look like that's going to happen any time soon."
Carlos Rodrigues, who chairs the Township's Zoning Board, and ran the Aston's hearings, said he was pleased with the outcome, and despite vociferous resistance on the residents' part, from a strict zoning perspective, he said the board "never really doubted that our decision would be upheld."
Township Committeeman Chad Goerner, a Bayard Lane resident who, prior to being appointed to the municipal governing body, was part of the plaintiffs' lawsuit against the Zoning Board, but has since withdrawn his name from the suit, said that part of the S-2 zone could be revised to be more in line with the surrounding neighborhoods. Currently, that zone allows for purposes related to heavy trucking and bus transportation, as well as uses that emit a "moderate amount of dust and noise," according to the Township's zoning code. The zone also allows for commercial garages and gasoline service stations, as well as retail use.
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