Playland ‘could go on forever,’ Greek says
Monroe zoning board OKs variance for onsite banquet facility
BY CHRISTINA HABERSTROH
Greek’s Playland, the nonprofit Monroe amusement park for disabled children, has a future after all.
After many hours of testimony given over several hearings before the Zoning Board of Adjustment, Spiro “The Greek” Drake and Dr. Beatrice Mittman got the vote they wanted last week — unanimous approval to operate the banquet facility they say is needed to continue operating their charity. Their operation on Spotswood-Englishtown Road has been closed due to a lack of permits and the denial last year of an application for the banquet facility already built on the site. The 87-acre property consists of: Greek’s Playland, where Drake, who goes only by the name “Greek,” has offered free parties for children with physical and mental disabilities since 1972; the Stone Museum, which is also free to visitors; and the Garden Falls and Mahal Gardens banquet facilities.
Greek and Mittman have said that the banquet facilities create a stream of revenue that is needed to maintain the playland and continue offering the free services to disabled children, and allow free entrance into the museum. Greek said he has offered the free services as the result of an oath he once made to the woman who raised him — that if he ever made a lot of money, which he eventually did through a landscaping business, he would devote half to causes involved with the physically and mentally challenged. He said the foster mother raised 60 children over the course of her life, and three were mentally challenged.
The Jan. 25 zoning board meeting was the last in a series of hearings on the application, which sought a use variance allowing the banquet facilities to reopen. A focal point at the hearing involved the operations’ impact on a neighboring property, and whether site
plan changes made recently by Greek and Mittman were enough to satisfy township regulations. “This is a very important topic here for Monroe Township,” said Zoning Board Chairman Stephen Dalina. Ted Gaydos, a neighbor of the Greek’s Playland property,was joined by his attorney, Fredrick Niemann, to voice their concerns and objections to the banquet facility. Their issues included parking, noise and drainage from the adjacent site.Mittman stressed the importance of the services provided at the site. “We all know that this property has been Greek’s creation and his life’s work. This application, however, is not about the Greek or about money. If this was about business, I would sell it to a local builder that has offered me $12 million,”Mittman said. According to traffic engineer Frank Miskovich, representing Greek, there arethree issues that pertain to the property: access, circulation and adequacy of parking. The site was originally designed to handle 70 landscaping trucks a day pulling in and out of the property, he said, adding that thearea can accommodate vehicular traffic coming and going from events at the banquet facilities.
Miskovich explained that the circulation works well with one way in at the south of the property and one way out on the north end. “From a traffic engineering standpoint, it really is a safe operation,”Miskovich said. Since a prior unsuccessful application, the
facility’s seating and maximum number of people permitted on the property were reduced from 1,000 to 890. Because Monroe’s ordinance doesn’t have a requirement for parking at a banquet facility, Miskovich described the property as an auditorium or meeting room without fixed seating, as opposed to a restaurant. For the 890 seats, 223 parking spaces would be required; the site has 384, he said.Also, he said it is unlikely that there would ever be 890 people on the property at the same time, since it would require all three banquet rooms to be used at maximum capacity simultaneously. “The three facilities are rarely, if ever, used at the same time,” said Mittman’s attorney, Timothy Hiskey.
Engineer and planner Michael Geller acknowledged that the facility is charitable and promotes cultural and recreational benefits for the public good, but the banquet facility, he said, is not a beneficial use, and financial liability can’t be used to support a use variance for something that is charitable. “We can’t run the charity if no one is supporting it,”Mittman said in response. Geller also argued that the reduction in square footage and seating were only minor changes and not enough to resolve the issues. The Mahal Gardens room had a net reduction of 3,000 square feet since the last application, he said. To achieve that, the covered walkway was reduced by 1,300 square feet, and the banquet room was reduced by 1,740 square feet. The number of seatingwent from 700 to 490, he noted. “It doesn’t correlate to me. You’re just saying you’re putting a lower number of seats in almost the same area,” Geller said.
Drainage conditions were also addressed since they have been an issue between Greek and neighbor Ted Gaydos for years, because Gaydos has argued that water from the adjacent property runs onto his land. Greek presented a slide show of photos of the drainage for the zoning board to get a better understanding of the property, and Geller
did the same for Gaydos’ property. “To get an approval, you not only have to prove the positive criteria, you have to prove the negative criteria, which is that it will not have an adverse impact on the community and adjacent property owners,”Niemann said in arguing Gaydos’ case. The attorney argued that the topic at hand was a use variance application, but there was discussion of intensifying the property’s nonconforming use, and that is different than if the applicant was seeking approval from the beginning.
“Policing these conditions for your municipality is practically impossible. Your police are burdened, your zoning office is burdened, my client is always complaining. You have reports of others. As a practical matter, it has not been enforced,” Neimann said. “The applicant has never honored any promises she has ever made to you, and what makes you think it will be any easier to policeor any more realistic that this applicant will honor her promises to this board?”
Gaydos’other concernwas the noise coming fromthe property.With the request of extending the hours of operation to midnight, Gaydos was worried that late-night disruptions would continue to be an issue. Gaydos has complained numerous times in the past about the sound during weddings at the banquet facility. Although a sound engineer was not in attendance at the meeting, prior testimony has been made that a custom sound system was professionally installed with 100 small speakers that cut down on sound traveling distance, instead of the powerful loud speakers that are normally used by entertainment companies, Greek said.All entertainment vendors are required
to plug into this customized system in order towork at the Garden Falls/Mahal Gardens banquet facility.
Board attorney Karl Meyertons agreed. Klein apologized and assured the board that it was merely to get the proper information on the case. The application was approved, with board members Carol Damiani, Dhaval Patel, Vincent LaFata,Marino Lupo, Joseph Gurney and Stephen Dalina voting in favor and Bernice Tepper abstaining.
The approval includes stipulations of an 890-person maximum with 49 tables and 384 parking spaces. If any conditions are violated, the owner would forfeit all present and existing programs and lot consolidation. “This is the most important thing in my life, and now I know it could go on forever,” Greek said in an interview. Greek extended his gratitude to all the board members and those who spoke out on his behalf, some of whom, he said, he had never met. “It brought a tear to my eye,” he said. “It’s nice to know that they appreciate what I have been doing all these years.”The Stone Museum is set to reopen in May, and the banquet facility will be preparing to reopen as well, under the direction of Mittman and Patricia Ciecko.