Sheft Associates, Inc., is proposing the construction of a 123 room Woodspring Suites extended stay hotel on land it owns adjacent to Colonial Lake in Lawrence. The company presented a revised application to Lawrence Township’s Planning Board recently. The application must be formally reviewed by the township and then addressed at a Planning Board meeting. There will also be a public comment period.
But he public is not waiting for the required comment period. Casey Hooker of Lawrenceville has created a Save Colonial Lake Facebook page with over 700 members, as well as a Change.org site with more than 3,700 names on a petition to stop the hotel project.
Hooker’s Facebook page and Change.org initiative both encourage Lawrence Township to purchase the land in question using Open Space funds to protect the lakefront described on the Change.org site as a “vitally important woodland in order to protect this jewel of the Lawrence Township park system and the greater Trenton area for generations to come.”
The initial application for development, which has been withdrawn and revised, raised concerns with local residents who felt it called for clear cutting the wooded areas adjacent to the north side of Colonial Lake. The view from adjacent homes and other parts of the lake includes a heavily wooded area on a gently rising slope from the lake toward Colonial Lanes on Route 1.
The revised plans appear to show that a buffer of approximately 30 feet of trees will remain along the lakefront, although the developer will still remove trees and vegetation on other parts of the property to allow for construction of the hotel, parking lots, a possible restaurant site and a storm water retention pond. The pond is required by existing law. The revised plans show a planting of approximately 40 smaller trees to the north of the lakefront buffer of existing trees, as well as other similar sized trees to be planted in and around the hotel and parking lots. All of these additional trees appear to be two- to three-and-a-half-inch-caliper trees.
‘I have a fundamental problem with clear cutting the oldest chunk of trees on Colonial Lake.’
Opponents of the project point with pride to the fact that bald eagles are seen daily at the lake, and residents are concerned that the hotel project and resulting loss of habitat would mean the eagles would not return.
Hooker notes that bald eagles are threatened but not technically endangered. Unless an eagle nest can be found within five miles of the lake, it is not likely her groups will be able to stop the hotel construction on that basis. Hooker also noted there are certain species of turtles on the lakeshore, although they are not endangered in New Jersey.
“The town can’t tell us what they will require to let [this project] pass because it hasn’t been considered by the Planning Board yet,” Hooker said. “We will fight for an environmental impact study and a traffic study…We want to conserve that land. We want the town to purchase the land.”
Concerned citizens have banded together and are calling on organizations such as the D&R Greenway Land Trust, Sustainable Lawrence and the Conservation Foundation to help them stop the construction they see as detrimental to their neighborhood.
“We hope the owners would come on board with us and realize the best thing would be for the town to buy the land,” Hooker said. “It would be a total step in the wrong direction to build this. We’re a special town and the last thing we want is another piece of open space taken. It’s not an appropriate space for a hotel. We want to preserve open space in the town. We want to preserve fresh air. We want people to be able to enjoy space outdoors.”
Paul Larson, chairperson of the Lawrence Township Open Space and Stewardship Advisory Committee, speaking with the Gazette on his own behalf, explained that even with the apparent buffer of trees left along the lake front in the revised application, the hotel will rise above the tree tops and be visible from the lake and adjacent homes.
“Some of the trees date back to the late 1920s or early 1930s. This land was a farm field at one time,” Larson said. “I have a fundamental problem with clear cutting the oldest chunk of trees on Colonial Lake.”
He also noted there is a small, isolated wetland on the property that the developer could fill in based on a current approval from the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection. It is not clear how long that approval will remain in effect.
Larson acknowledged the developer made some adjustments on the revised plan.
“My understanding is they reduced the number of rooms and that got them around a zoning variance they would have needed,” he said. “They identified all the trees and listed them all by species, which isn’t a hundred percent correct based on my observation.”
Part of the land to be used for the hotel is currently paved, although the revised plans do show removal of trees for both the hotel and the storm water retention pond required to deal with rainwater from gutters and parking lots for both the bowling alley and the hotel. The plan shows two inlets to the retention pond and one outlet which will allow the water to flow into the lake.
Pam Mount is the chair of the board of directors for Sustainable Lawrence, chair of the Conservation Foundation, a member of the township Open Space and Stewardship Advisory Committee and a former mayor of Lawrence Township.
Speaking for herself Mount said, “The groups I’m involved in are concerned because Colonial Lake is the only lake in town. When I was mayor, we dredged the whole thing at a big cost to the town. I’ve personally planted all kinds of native species along the lake edge.”
“There’s a wonderful walk all around the lake,” she said. “The only missing link in that walkway is the part behind the bowling alley. We should have protected it years ago when we built the rest of the protected area. We now have 27 percent of the land in Lawrence preserved. We’ve been very, very active not only in parklands, but in preserving endangered areas.”
Mount noted that she herself and the groups she is involved with are not against development on Route 1, acknowledging the property in question is zoned commercial. She doesn’t feel the project is necessary, however, as there are many other hotels along Route 1.
“We applaud the bowling alley for spending the time and money to fix their place up,” Mount said of the same company that is proposing the hotel project. “We think it is a fantastic family place to go. It seems to be doing quite well. They worked hard at it and they have a great following.”
Mount also suggests the town buy the land from Sheft, noting her concern that the hotel will not be successful. “The town has spent a significant amount of public monies on that area. All of those dollars were spent on building community and providing a safe and walkable community for the people who live there. It doesn’t necessarily follow that a hotel fits in with the community.”
Mount noted that Lawrence Township has Open Space monies available and that Mercer County has not spent any of their open space funds in Lawrence Township.
Hooker echoed the concerns raised by Mount when she said “Putting a three-story hotel there does not go along with the other plans for the improvement of Route 1. We don’t need any more parking lots and development where we have wildlife. It would be much better served to make that land part of the park. This is something that none of us want.”
Noting that the groups opposing the project are focused on awareness and that the residents will be part of the process, Hooker said “We want to continue to show our concern. We want Lawrenceville to be a unique and special place where people can enjoy nature.”
Lawrence Township Manager Kevin Nerwinski said, “Many people believe that the Planning Board has the legal right to object or vote ‘no’ to an application based upon not liking the idea of it. This is not the case,” he said. “Planning Board (and Zoning Board) members are bound by their oath to vote based upon the law. The area in question is commercially zoned and a hotel is a permitted use. These factors limit the planning board’s authority to deny such an application.”
Nerwinski added, “People have come to council meetings and have expressed their objection to the proposed hotel. Although the mayor and council are precluded to act or comment on a pending planning board application, I know it is very important to them to hear the concerns of the residents, and that they have a fiduciary obligation to protect the communities’ valuable resources to every degree possible.”
Comments were requested from Sheft Associates but were not received by press time.