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By John Tredrea
Lawsuit seeking to overturn the Hopewell Township Zoning Board of Adjustment decision was filed in state Superior Court Jan. 30 by township residents Ted Petrie and Robert Kraeger, both residents of Elm Ridge Park.
A plan to put a restaurant in a historic farmhouse at 350 Carter Road, unanimously approved by the Hopewell Township Zoning Board of Adjustment, has sparked a lawsuit against the board.
Other defendants in the case are: Townsend Property Trust Limited Partnership, Towson, Md., and E.A.T., Inc., doing business as Main Street, Rocky Hill.
The zoning board granted a use variance on Nov. 12, 2003, to the applicant, E.A.T. Inc., of Rocky Hill, after conducting several public hearings. The use variance permits the operation of a restaurant, bar, banquet hall and catering facility.
E.A.T. Inc. operates the Main Street Café in Kingston, the Main Street Bistro in Princeton, and a catering business whose headquarters are in Rocky Hill. Plans for the Carter Road site include a main dining area and adjoining porch, a bar and lounge, two private dining rooms, and a kitchen and catering area with a total seating capacity of 218 on the first floor. Plans for the second floor include a ballroom with seating for 200.
The lawsuit seeking to overturn the zoning board decision was filed in state Superior Court Jan. 30 by township residents Ted Petrie and Robert Kraeger, both residents of Elm Ridge Park. An unusual aspect of the suit is that Mr. Kraeger is a member of the township zoning board. His term began Jan. 1, 2003, and ends Dec. 31, 2006. However, he recused himself from the board's series of hearings on the restaurant proposal. Messrs. Petrie and Kraeger are represented by Princeton attorney Stuart Lieberman.
The lawsuit alleges that John Marshall of E.A.T. Inc. tried to influence the zoning board's decision on his company's application by improperly offering Mr. Kraeger a job landscaping the property, should the zoning board, of which Mr. Kraeger was a member, approve the application.
Mr. Marshall denied the accusation on Tuesday, saying he did not know Mr. Kraeger was a member of the zoning board when the job offer was made.
Mr. Marshall said Tuesday: "In late July 2003, I was getting together a team of local professionals to help us get our application before the Planning Board (as noted above, it was switched to the zoning board a few months later). Mr. Kraeger was recommended to me as an experienced landscape architect. I asked if he could help us, but he said he was going out of town and also that, since he was a member of the zoning board, he could not participate. He gave me the names of several other landscape architects. I used one of them. When I spoke to Mr. Kraeger about doing the landscape architecture, I was not aware he was on the zoning board. It was my understanding he stepped down from the board to oppose our application, which he did."
In an earlier statement made Monday, Mr. Marshall said the approval his firm gained from the zoning board is "unique in that everyone in the township was given the ability to enjoy its outcome. Normally variances are not personal, relevant and valuable to every community member. This suit is so outrageous and infuriating because it potentially results in personal detriment to each and every one of us many times over — the potential loss of the use, public funds, and lovely historic structure."
The lawsuit also contends that, because he is a member of the township's Historic Preservation Commission, there was a "conflict of interest" involved in the testimony before the zoning board of Max Hayden, an area architect. Mr. Hayden supported the restaurant plan. He was not paid by E.A.T Inc., Mr. Marshall said Monday, adding that Mr. Hayden is an old friend of his.
The lawsuit says that one of the zoning board's primary reasons for granting the use variance was the board's belief that the property slated for the restaurant has historic value and the restaurant would be a suitable "readaptive"use of the site. The lawsuit maintains, however, that "nothing in the record supports the conclusion that the proposed use of this facility as another of the many high-end restaurants in Mercer County . . . is particularly suitable" for the proposed site.
In the 14-page lawsuit, Mr. Lieberman maintains that, because his clients' architect was not allowed to testify during the zoning board hearings, the board "never understood the scope and nature of the proposed project, nor the legally allowable intensity of use that such a project may entail."
Calls to zoning board Chairman William Connolly were not returned before press time.