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Friday, October 06, 2006

Peapack board rejects bid to build cottages

Star-Ledger Staff

A contentious bid by Hamilton Farm Golf Club to build a small, upscale gated community off Fowler Road was rejected early yesterday by the Peapack-Gladstone land-use board after falling one vote short of approval.

The elite club, located on the former James Cox Brady estate, boasts two golf courses and hosts the United States Olympic Eques trian Team.

But the proposed "Cottages at Hamilton Farm" -- 18 four-bedroom member homes that would be woven into 16 acres of woods around the fourth, fifth and sixth holes of the club's Hickory Course -- received a poor reception among neighbors of the 535-acre club.

Following a public hearing that stretched past midnight Wednesday, the board voted 4-3 to approve the plan. But the plan needed five votes to pass.

The "cottages" -- homes averaging 4,500 square feet -- were approved in 1999 for occasional corporate entertainment. After the club ownership changed hands, new owner Dennis Townsend, chairman of Townsend Capital of Towson, Md., applied in 2005 to convert the cottages into perma nent single-family homes in an age- restricted community.

Neighbors objected. Fowler Road, a sparsely populated tree- lined, unpaved road is suited for joggers, playing children and dog- walkers, and not for creeping "suburbanization" by an out-of-state developer, residents argued.

The application was dropped, but it resurfaced in July 2006 after the borough's zoning officer, Len Taylor, denied an application to build the club's second "cottage." Taylor maintained a Burgdorff Realtors advertisement in local papers indicated the cottages were being marketed as year-round residences. A 1999 board resolution strictly prohibits residential use.

The club appealed Taylor's interpretation to the board, but then put that appeal on hold to apply for permanent housing. In hear ings, club professionals testified the residences, which would likely be used as second homes by the club's wealthy members, would be a preferable and less-intensive use than corporate entertainment.

Neighbors ardently disagreed. Stuart Lieberman, the attorney for a group of neighbors suing the golf club, said the picture painted of "wild, drunken corporate executives" was "laughable."
Lieberman gestured at a picture of the club's sole, almost-complete home and dismissed it as a "Toll Brothers thing on a postage- stamp-sized lot."

"Why ruin this neighborhood?" Lieberman demanded. "You don't legally have to. ... You promised something else."

Board member John Terry, who voted against the application, said he was troubled by the size of the homes.

"In my mind, that doesn't look like a golf cottage," Terry said. "A small cottage is one thing, but you get 18 of these big things in there -- it's really going to look horren dous."

Resident Ruth Williams, who submitted a voluminous packet of information about the club's appli cation to the board, called the proposal "suburbanization in its most insidious form." She suggested the close-knit community along Fowler Road would degrade into a "way station for people who don't really live here, they just play golf here."

Townsend, who attended the meeting, said it was too early to say what the club's next move will be.

"I think it's decidedly in the disinterest of the community," Townsend said of the vote. "What you have is a bunch of people on Fowler Road who would like the public to pay for their private driveway."

Board Chairman Anthony Suri ano, who voted for the application, said he "labored over what position I was going to take right up to the last minute."

Suriano noted the club has been unable to build more than one house due to a cease-and-desist order Taylor issued in May.

With the application denied, the club can now continue the appeal of Taylor's order. The club also has an ongoing lawsuit against the board, and Suriano said the matter may end up in the courts.
"It would not surprise me -- that's my expectation," Suriano said. "The decision may not be ours."

Nyier Abdou works in the Somerset County bureau. She may be reached at [email protected] or (908) 429-9925.