Rite Aid, essentially asking for forgiveness rather than permission, won that forgiveness on Nov 12, 2015 when the Highland Park Planning Board granted the Raritan Avenue Rite Aid relief from the conditions of its 2007 site plan approval. After acknowledging that its recent renovations and implementation of 24-hour-per-day service were in violation of its site plan approval, Rite Aid asked the planners and won relief based on its arguments that its service to the community justified the changes in its original approvals. Members of the community, however, voiced their concerns not with Rite Aid per se, but with the lack of adequate municipal oversight and a failure in the permitting process that allowed Rite Aid to renovate in spite of the clear violations. Rite Aid – upending the conditions set forth in its 2007 site plan approval – will be allowed to operate 24 hours per day, to obstruct the windows on Fourth Avenue and Raritan Avenues, to keep the parking lot lit at all hours, and to display non-conforming signage. The Planning Board approvals were granted with conditions about the treatment of the blocked windows, aesthetics of the signage and the wattage of lighting in the parking lot.
Representatives from Rite Aid appeared before the Highland Park Planning Board on November 12, 2015 to present additional evidence in support of their request for relief from conditions defined in their 2007 site plan approval. Specifically these conditions were those that: restricted windows from being obstructed, restricted hours of operation, and restricted hours during which parking lot lighting may be active. Rite Aid acknowledged that these conditions have already been violated in the recent renovation of the store. The Highland Park Planning granted Rite Aid the following:
- Relief from the condition agreed to as part of the previously approved site plan documents identified as Resolution #2007-06 dated September 17, 2007 that restricts store hours of operation. The Rite Aid store will be allowed to operate for 24 hours a day.
- Relief from condition agreed to as part of the previously approved site plan documents identified as Resolution #2007-06 dated September 17, 2007 that prohibits the placement or construction of shelving units to exceed windowsill height. Any structure exceeding windowsill height effectively eliminates the windows on Fourth Avenue – and the maintenance of the windows was a goal of the 2007 agreement. Rite-Aid will be allowed to block windows along Fourth Avenue and on the window along Raritan Avenue with partition walls required for full height refrigeration units.
- “C” variances from Land Development Ordinance allowing for signage in violation of current signage regulations and in violation of signage variance granted in 2007 site plan approval.
While the planning board voted unanimously, with two abstentions to grant the variances and relief of conditions, community members expressed concern during public comment about the lack of oversight that allowed the permits to be issued for work not in compliance with conditions of site plan approval and without proper planning board review or required public hearing. Highland Park Main Street Design Committee Chairperson James Nichols, AIA, reminded the board and its professionals that vigilance in oversight and process was critical for land-use issues that outlive staff and personnel directly involved in initial review and approval.
Planning Board approval with conditions was granted for the obstructed windows along Fourth Avenue. These will be transformed into art boxes or gallery space for Mason Gross School of the Arts. Rite Aid is in the process of finalizing an agreement with Rutgers for curating and maintaining these art boxes. Board members requested that the final agreement include contractual language that defines the borough’s role in the event of contractual breakdown with Rutgers. Town Council Liaison Phil George questioned the impact to any agreement between Rite Aid and Rutgers in the event the Rite Aid lease is terminated or transferred to another entity. The borough wants to be sure that the terms of agreement and the contract remains intact. Rite Aid Attorney Bill Harrison assured the board members that any agreement “runs with the land” and will be transferable to any future leaseholder.
Support of the proposal for art boxes included expert testimony to the impact of solar glare on the art work, deemed minimal, the proposal to relocate an existing evergreen which will be coordinated with the shade tree commission, the installation of community bulletin boards on the corner wall at Fourth Avenue and Raritan Avenue which will be accessible to the borough and the use of the obscured window on Raritan as a marquee providing information on the exhibits and Mason Gross. A lighting expert provided testimony that lighting in the art boxes will appropriately illuminate the Fourth Avenue sidewalk and pedestrian way.
The Planning Board approved, with conditions, Rite Aid’s proposal to relocate and add signage on the north façade and relocate signage on the south façade. A nonconforming amount of signage was already granted a variance in the 2007 Site Plan Approval. The current proposed increase requires a variance in excess of what was previously granted. Expert testimony from Paul Ricci, Licensed Professional Planner, indicated that Highland Park Municipal Code is unique in that it limits signage by allowable square foot, regardless of scale or size of building. The same amount of square footage is allowed on a 2000 square foot building as on a 5000 square foot building, resulting in situations where a smaller building may be allowed to have 10 percent of its façade utilized for signage but a larger building would be only allow two percent. He noted that the signage proposed is well below the 10 percent allowed on smaller buildings. The Planning Board was however, successful in negotiating a reduction in the amount of proposed signage added at this time recognizing that, when the Community Health Clinic opens inside of Rite Aid, a new sign will be added. Aesthetic changes to balance the font size and signage placement on the front façade were also successfully negotiated by the Planning Board.
Expert testimony by Daniel J. Dougherty Engineering Consultant revealed that existing lighting levels in the parking lot are lower than those indicated on the approved site plan in 2007. However, in negotiations for extended hours of illumination and in response to community input, Rite-Aid agreed to look at ways to reduce wattage on light fixtures impacting spillage onto adjacent residential properties. With this they were granted relied from the restricted hours for parking lot lighting agreed to in the 2007 Site Plan Approval.
Professional planner Ricci also testified that the impact of extended operational hours would have no negative impact on the community and, in fact, would provide significant benefits. He identified that we are no longer a 9-to-5 society and many people’s shifts leave evening hours as their opportunity to shop. A proposed 24-hour pharmacy provides after-hours accessibility to those in need of medications or supplies. Hours for sale of liquor will remain the same at 12 p.m. to 10 p.m. Rite Aid anticipates only 30 to 50 additional customers over the additional nine hours, the impact of which is very little to surrounding residences. He also noted that the extended hours would provide additional jobs to the Highland Park community.