By John Burton
MIDDLETOWN – The battle for Trinity Hall isn’t over.
School representatives say they will appeal to the state Superior Court the township planning board’s decision to deny their application to construct a permanent facility for the all-girls high school on Chapel Hill Road.
Area residents, who had been voicing their concerns over the large development in their residential neighborhood, also have vowed to continue trying to block the project.
Mary Sciarrillo, Trinity Hall’s head of school, said there are no other sites being considered by the school, which opened last fall in temporary quarters in the township-owned Croydon Hall.
“We’re going to appeal and that’s where we are today,” Sciarrillo said. “We are a very functioning school with a cutting edge and rigorous curriculum. We’ve had a very successful first year.”
Trinity Hall will have 45 days to file its appeal from when the planning board memorializes its resolution of denial, possibly as soon as its July 2 meeting.
Ron Gasiorowski, the Red Bank lawyer who represented objecting homeowners during the six months of board hearings, said, “It’s their right … Whether it’s before a trial court or the appellate court,” he said his clients are “prepared to see this matter through to the end.”
Jennifer Valencia, one of the area residents who fought the plan, said about the possible appeal that it was “disappointing to hear that that’s what they intend.
“The time, the effort, the money spent on a appeal could easily be spent on finding a more appropriate permanent location,” she said.
Ultimately she believed the board’s decision will be upheld and the neighborhood association established to combat the plan will remain active and likely lobby for amending the conditional permitted use ordinance.
“We plan on staying involved,” Valencia said.
The planning board voted 6-3 Wednesday, June 11, to deny the school’s application to construct a multibuilding campus on approximately 30 acres of a 64-acre largely wooded, undeveloped site on Chapel Hill Road. Board members cited traffic safety concerns and technical issues with the application for their negative vote.
“We don’t understand why they denied it,” Sciarrillo said. “From our point of view we met all the elements of the ordinance,” for the conditional permitted-use approval the school was seeking from the board.
John Giunco, the school’s land use attorney, agreed with Sciarrillo.
“It was an application that met the standards imposed by the ordinance and, as such, was entitled to an approval,” he said. Giunco said he was taken aback by the denial. “Any issue the objectors raised related to the site,” such as on-site parking, buffers and lighting, “were all addressed.”
Gasiorowski said the denial was rendered because, “The bottom line is they didn’t prove their case.”
The school’s application “had significant engineering problems,” Gasiorowski argued. He contended that there was incomplete information about such issues as flooding and drainage on the property and the traffic safety on the winding road where fatal auto accidents have occurred in the past. “I just think the board just wasn’t comfortable” with the plan, Gasiorowski said.
Trinity Hall is a private, all-girls school offering a religious and scholastic educational program in the Catholic tradition.
The school has been operating out of Croydon Hall in the Leonardo section. Because Croydon Hall comes under the state Department of Environmental Protection’s Green Acres program for recreational open space, the state agency would only agree to a two-year lease of the property.
The school’s plan is to construct academic and physical education facilities, sports fields and performing arts facilities in phases that could eventually accommodate up to 500 students in grades 9-12 on the property in the neighborhood populated by homes on sprawling properties and farmland. Area residents voiced concerns about the project, believing it is inconsistent with the area. They have expressed fears over the added influx of traffic – and young drivers – and activities the site would generate and what that would mean for their quality of life. They also raised issues about what they said were environmental concerns with the site, which includes wetlands.
Proponents have been countering, saying the school would be a less intense use of the location than other possible uses and Trinity Hall would be a good neighbor.
The two sides had taken to social media and wearing dueling T-shirts at the lengthy planning board hearings to express their views, with objectors putting up numerous lawn signs in the area.