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Oakland council rejects zoning board over expanded auto shop proposal

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OAKLAND — The borough council voted 4 to 1 on Monday to overrule the zoning board’s approval in July of a use waiver allowing Lukoil/Tire Tech to expand operations from 357 Ramapo Valley Road to the neighboring property of Oakland Pharmacy.

Council attorney Brian Chewcaskie called it the first time in 20 years that a zoning board decision was challenged by council.

The vote followed 45 minutes of council discussion of statements made by its planning professionals and council members at five hearings on Sam Ellahi’s application for Ellahi Fuel Inc. He requested a waiver of use allowing him to convert the long vacant pharmacy at 373 Ramapo Valley. Road to a six-bay repair and storage facility.

Ellahi is a long-term tenant of the Lukoil franchise.

Councilman Eric Kulmala recused himself from voting early in the discussion, criticizing Mayor Linda Schwager for taking too much public interest in the zoning board’s decision. However, Schwager stood up for herself, saying she didn’t have the right to vote but wanted the public to know what was involved.

“The zoning board is not elected, we are,” Schwager said. “They don’t respond to the public. We do.”

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The appeal was filed in September by resident Jean Brennan. She said she filed a claim to prevent an expansion of what she called poor maintenance of the current business.

Ellahi testified that he wanted the extra space to alleviate parking and storage issues on the current property.

Council members repeatedly referenced negative comments in transcripts made by zoning board members and the borough’s planner, traffic expert and engineer during five hearings on the proposal, only for the council votes 5-1 in his favour, including President Richard Lepre.

“Three board members made negative comments about the plan, but only one voted no,” Councilman Pasquale “Pat” Pignatelli said. “I was amazed that Mr. Lepre voted for this.”

Councilman Grant Van Eck admitted he struggled with his vote.

“How did the board come to the conclusion that this was a good idea? asked Van Eyck. “The building has been empty since I’ve been living in town, so I can clearly see both sides.”

Councilman John Biale said his opposition had nothing to do with the vendor, where he buys his gasoline and tires.

“But in 10, 20, 30 years to bring this city to what we want it to look like, this business can’t be part of downtown,” Biale said.

Councilman Russell Talamini was the only member to vote against a reversal.

“We put these signs up so we didn’t have to go through this,” Talamini said. “You have to trust your officials.”

Chewcaskie said Ellahi had the option of appealing the council’s vote in court.

Marsha Stoltz is a local reporter for For unlimited access to the most important news from your local community, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.

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Twitter: @marsha_stoltz