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GIVE ‘EM AN INCH, THEY’LL TAKE A BLOCK

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One of the crappiest — and, apparently, most star-crossed — corners of Red Bank seems destined to stay that way for the foreseeable future.

Last week, the new owner of property at the southeast intersection of Monmouth and West streets, just a block east of the train station, lost a battle to have a development plan for the site heard by the planning board.

At issue: whether one inch of space between proposed structures makes them distinct buildings.

The decision by the zoning board was strictly a jurisdictional one, and answered whether the zoning or planning board should have oversight of the plan. But it could lead to yet more litigation over a parcel that has seen it’s share of courtroom tussles, the lawyer for the would-be developer says.

The property is the site of disused vacant filling station, two deteriorated houses on Monmouth Street, a small garage and some empty lots.

The site was to have been developed by Building and Land Technology, which in 2003 won approvals to erect 24 condos and five townhouses there. But the case landed in court over conflict-of-interest allegations. Late last year, the approval was upheld by Monmouth County Superior Court, but BLT sold the project to RB Monmouth LLC without seeking building permits.

RB Monmouth is unrelated to BLT, said RB Monmouth principal George Coffenberg, of Ocean Township. He also said he scrapped the approved plans he acquired from BLT so he could conform to suggestions from the Visual Improvement Committee of Red Bank RiverCenter, which wanted to see retail incorporated into the project.

RB Monmouth wants to erect what it says are five buildings in two clusters: three along Monmouth Street, separated by one inch of space; and two on West Street, ditto. Each of the buildings would have street-level retail space and residential space on the upper floors; the Monmouth Street structures, at four stories tall, would have an additional, second story of office space. (The schematic above enlarges if you click on it.)

The matter landed in front of the zoning board last week in the form of an appeal. Planning & zoning director Donna Smith Barr had previously told the developer that he’d have to take his plans before the zoning board. The developer disagreed, arguing that its plan called for no density or use variances.

That argument, made by RB Monmouth lawyer Wayne Peck, was unanimously rejected by the zoning board last week. But not before the argument veered off into a rather esoteric argument about how much space between structures is required before a structure can properly be called a building.

Peck says that while there are minimum zoning requirements, subject to variances, there’s no official definition of ‘building’ that incorporates a reference to distance to the nearest structure. He says the RB Momnouth plan is little different from what exists along Broad Street in downtown Red Bank.

“If one inch doesn’t make them buildings, then how many inches of separation make separate buildings?” he asked the panel. “Whether we can build at one inch is something one of your two boards will have to decide. But these are separate buildings, admittedly close together.”

“I have doubt that we’re talking about five buildings,” Barr said at the hearing. And when in doubt, she defers to the zoning board, she said.

At a limit of four residential units per structure, Barr’s interpretation would mean that the builder could erect only eight on the site, instead of the 20 being sought.

“They are so close that they’re almost indiscernible,” borough engineer Richard Kosenski said of the buildings. He said that allowing RB Monmouth to proceed unchecked “will result in a density that is greater than the density in any zone” in town.

Peck said repeatedly that his client’s aim in appealing Barr’s decision was to head off future legal challenges to any approvals based on a claim that the project had been approved by the wrong board. “This decision exposes my client to an absolute slam dunk loss if we win approval and someone challenges it based on jurisdiction,” he said afterward, addding that Coffenberg would have to decide whether to accept the decision or “take it to Freehold.”

Even if RB Monmouth manages to win approval, though, it would appear unlikely to be issued a building permit anytime soon. The Two Rivers Water Reclamation Authority, to which Red Bank directs its sanitary waste, last month instituted a ban on new sewer connections.

Kosenski told the borough council this week that the ban could postpone new development in the 12 affected towns, and Fort Monmouth, by two years or more.

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