STEPPING UP TO THE BAR

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By LINDA G. RASTELLI

Buying Donovan’s Reef for Sea Bright borough’s use is either (choose one) a “great investment” in the town’s future or a “nutty” waste of taxpayer’s money.

Battle lines were drawn in firm but civil tones last night as the Borough Council passed a resolution to begin negotiations to buy the Ocean Avenue restaurant and bar, with an asking price of $4.5 million, although a vocal contingent of three council members oppose the purchase outright.

Mayor Jo-Ann Kalaka-Adams, who touted the plan and voted in its favor, prevailed in a 4-3 vote.

The plan, as outlined by proponents, is for the borough to turn Donovan’s into a revenue-generating beach club, deriving fees from residents and visitors alike.

At the same time, Kalaka-Adams says, visitors to the the municipal building just across Center Street would have a better chance of finding a parking space, which would obviate the need to build a new borough hall at far greater expense. Emergency parking during storms would also be in greater supply, backers of the plan say.

Kalaka-Adams and Council President William Keeler cited publicly owned beach clubs in Allenhurst and Monmouth Beach as successful examples that Sea Bright may want to emulate. Allenhurst’s club brings in nearly a million dollars annually in general revenues, Keeler said.

Keeler presented the plan as an opportunity to boost quality of life, particularly for roughly 650 people who live in the downtown area, to “improve the town’s facilities and services at minimum cost,” and to “create a source of non-tax based revenue,” such as a beach and pool club.

About a dozen residents from among an audience of about 75 people who turned out on a muggy summer night took the podium to vent their opinions, pro and con. Joan Osgood concurred with Kalaka-Adams and Keeler that the plan was worth considering.

“Everyone seems to be concerned with the money we’d be spending,” she said. “But if it produces a half million a year, it could decrease our taxes.”

But C. Read Murphy, a former councilman, said the borough should redevelop the long-vacant Peninsula House oceanfront site before considering any new purchases.

“Let’s develop the land we sat on for 20 years,” he said. “There’s lots of potential here.”

The 82 parking spaces at Donovan’s would also provide the town with something of an answer to the state Department of Environmental Protection’s lawsuit over public beach access, which alleges inadequate parking for visitors, Keeler said.

But a Donovan’s purchase would result in “a big [tax] hit,” said Councilwoman Dina Long, who put together a lengthy Powerpoint presentation — complete with photographs — to demonstrate why she, along with fellow council members Maria Fernandes and Thomas Scriven, oppose the idea. One reason: the impact on taxpayers.

“If you have a $400,000 property, you’ll be paying an additional $300 a year for the next 30 years,” she said.

Long suggested the town “look at the Smart Growth recommendations [for borough hall] we already have,” referring to a consultant the town had hired to consider revitalization options. “It’s the wrong priorities for Sea Bright.”

But Councilman Brian Kelly said Long’s math was incomplete. “It’s not that simple as a tax increase,” he said. “We would save the borough hall, save on school taxes, and have an income generating property — a great investment. It’s well worth investigating to see what we can get it for.”

The lack of hard numbers, suggested Fernandes, is the problem with moving forward. “We need a feasibility study,” she said. “I can’t speak intelligently as to whether a pool club would work.”

“We’re not voting on buying it tonight,” said the mayor. “We’re voting on negotiating. And it’s our responsibility to do this. We have a density problem.” Kalaka-Adams said she regretted the town had not bought other properties when they were available in recent years.

Donovan’s co-owner Chris Bowler, who is also an owner of Brannigan’s Bar and Grill in Red Bank, could not be reached for comment. A Brannigan’s employee said he was on vacation.

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