Engineer Jackie Flor of T&M Associates discusses the impact on a parking lot paving project necessitated by the demolition of the Sea Bright Public Library. The dormant borough school building, below. (Photo by John T. Ward. Click to enlarge)
By JOHN T. WARD
Overlapping concerns about beachfront development, the future of the crumbling former school and the demolition of the public library dominated an issue-heavy meeting of the Sea Bright council Thursday morning.
Mayor Dina Long, who had opposed tearing down the library until a proposed combination library and bathing pavilion could be built, defended Saturday’s hasty demolition, but acknowledged that “perhaps it could have been handled in a different manner.”
“it was certainly no secret that that building was going to be abandoned after the last council meeting,” on December 17, she said at a crowded council workshop session. “But my concern going forward is that members of our own community felt there was a lack of transparency” about the timing of the action, which gave rise to conspiracy theories that are now “driving a wedge between” elected officials and residents, she said.
Long said she was looking for better ways to have the town communicate with residents. Councilman Marc Leckstein said a new borough website, which is to debut in coming weeks, will go some way toward that goal. Councilman Read Murphy, saying he had been “fricasseed” on the All About Sea Bright Facebook page for his role in the demolition, defended his actions.
Heather Bedenko, though, suggested that what drove some residents to post angrily on social media was that “a lot of people thought that fixing the library was a done deal” as a result of a vote to spend $70,000 on repairs by the council last June. The decision to tear it down shocked even members of the library’s board of trustees, who learned of it on the night of the vote.
“That’s part of the communication problem,” Bedenko said. The June decision was unexpectedly “revoked.”
The council’s decision to demolish the freestanding, 20-year-old structure “actually ended up saving the borough money,” said Long. As explained by engineer Jackie Flor, it means that the town will not have to run lighting conduits for the municipal parking lot – now getting a $1.3 million facelift – around the structure. And the town won’t be left with a doughnut hole in the lot that would have had to be filled when the library was eventually torn down, she said.
But Marianne McKenzie questioned both the haste to demolish and the council’s approval last month of the $1.7 million library and beach pavilion that prompted it. Contrary to official claims, she said, the pavilion does not conform to the findings of the Sea Bright 20/20 exercise aimed at gathering consensus from residents about rebuilding the town in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy.
Th 20/20 effort yielded an emphasis on projects that would be revenue-generating and function year-round, neither of which the pavilion would do, she said.
“Having a top floor for lifeguards? You get a stand,” McKenzie said. “You have a building overlooking the ocean for lifeguards. We have to step back . We don’t need to put $1.7 million to something that is used two months a year with a downstairs library that nobody is happy with.”
The long-range use of the municipal lot, and whether it and the former school building on nearby River Street should be redeveloped, also occupied extended stretches of the two-and-a-half-hour meeting, a council workshop session that, despite it’s 8:30 a.m. start time, was packed with residents.
Also present was Greg Tencza of Rumson, who last month floated a concept plan for dozens of homes mixed with stores and offices on the oceanfront site. But the council’s discussion of his proposal veered off into a policy debate over whether the town should redevelop the parking lot – and with it, possibly, the privately owned school building, as a parking garage – or sell it outright.
Murphy, while emphasizing that Tencza “is not my guy,” nonetheless backed Tencza’s proposal.
“To me, time’s of the essence,” he said. The town needs to start generating significant tax revenue, he said. “We could get seven to nine million right away. We would get a commitment to build our fire, police and borough hall before he even touches that project.”
Long, however, was opposed.
“My position is emphatic. I believe now is not the time to be talking about redevelopment,” she said. Noting that the council is comprised of volunteers, she said, “I have no desire for this governing body to get into the real estate business.
“We need to decide first what the identity of Sea Bright is,” she added. “Letting developers come in without us deciding our identity is just backwards.”
The council agreed to authorize Flor to pursue grants that would pay for studies leading to a possible Master Plan review and rezoning of the the site.
As for the River Street structure, Long said, “I don’t want to spend one dime of taxpayer money dealing with the school.”
That property instead appears headed to an abandoned properties list that would be created under and ordinance in the works. The ordinance would enable the town to demolish such structures and recoup its costs through liens.