By SUE MORGAN
Sea Bright officials were left with narrowed options this week after finding little support for a plan to buy the so-called “Tapestry building” at 3 Church Street and turn it into a new town hall.
About 60 borough residents braved a cold, blustery night Monday to oppose the idea, citing costs, a near-total absence of onsite parking and the likely unavailability of financing.
Mayor Maria Fernandes and the borough council have been negotiating a purchase of the building most recently home to Tapestry Productions, a video content creator as a way to alleviate overcrowding at the present-day town hall located within the community center at 1167 Ocean Avenue.
The Tapestry building is on the market for $1.2 million.
But the borough is acting under duress. State law requires that the borough have secure, lockable tax collection office, which it does not. Moreover, state Superior Court Judge Lawrence M. Lawson has ordered Sea Bright to bring its municipal court operations into compliance with rules regarding working space and records storage. For the past 15 years, the court has been housed in a trailer parked behind the community center.
Fernandes and the council are rushing to meet the assignment judges Dec. 31, 2008 deadline or face the consequences: a state takeover of the court, and with it, all its annual revenue, now in the $200,000 range.
By then, the council must either show that it is moving ahead on the proposed purchase or that it’s pursuing an alternative option. Proponents of the Church Street purchase say it would give the borough a solution to its tax-office problem and free up the existing community center to house a courtroom and allow for an addition to hold a judges chambers, offices, and file storage in place of the trailer.
Should Sea Bright officials not be able to show they are taking either route to comply, the judge can seize any revenues brought in by the municipal court and hold them in a non-interest bearing account until the law is met, Fernandes told the residents assembled inside the community centers gymnasium.
“Hes done it before,” Fernandes said of Lawson.
But most of the 14 speakers who addressed the council Monday cited drawbacks and hardships associated with the purchase and renovation of 3 Church. The resulting tax burden, a lack of nearby parking and Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) access, the buildings proximity to a busy school bus stop, its location in a residential neighborhood and the areas high water table came up over again.
Meanwhile, South Street resident Jyll Jakes told officials they might be lucky to find a bank that would even finance the purchase given the nations economic crisis.
“This has to be the worst time ever in the history of the United States, except for the Great Depression, to even get a loan,” Jakes said.
Councilman Jack Keeler predicted that by the time the borough had purchased and renovated the building to make it ADA-compliant and suitable as office space, taxpayers could incur close to $2 million in debt. Tax revenue of $7,500 a year would also be lost because of its conversion to municipal use, Keeler said.
While voicing limited support for acquiring the property, former councilman Andrew Mencinsky pressed the governing body to act on one of the options soon so as to eliminate the public perception that officials make plans and then fail to see them through.
“To build a new building doesnt make sense. That building (3 Church Street) is already built,” Mencinsky said. “Or maybe we should renovate this (community center) building.”
While a few speakers argued that renovating and adding onto the community center might be less costly and take less time to carry out than the Church Street plan, Fernandes pointed out such a project would have to be put out to bid, which could take at least three months itself. Also, the borough would need to obtain the necessary coastal access permits from the state because the addition, which would replace the trailer, would be built in an easterly direction towards the seawall and the ocean, she said.
Citing the negotiations to purchase 3 Church, ongoing since last summer, Borough Attorney Scott Arnette declined to disclose any possible price.
If the borough were to acquire the property, parking would be located across Ocean Avenue in the existing municipal lot according to Councilman Brian Kelly, who heads the towns Smart Growth Revitalization Committee.