Sunny Sharma says he can't catch a break.
It's not a new feeling, certainly. Over the last couple of years, as he battled his Leighton Avenue neighbors and the Red Bank Council in a failed bid to keep his liquor license, Sharma says he's grown accustomed to being treated like a pariah.
But with the war lost just a month ago and all the booze packed up and shipped out, he had hoped he could quietly turn his attention to the future and start recouping some of the hundreds of thousands of dollars that went toward legal fees, not to mention the equity that went up in smoke with the loss of the license.
His plan: turn Best Liquors & Food Mart into Best Deli & Food Mart. Build up a clientele by accepting food stamps for milk, bread and other staples, and supplement revenue by firing up a grill that was used at the store long before he bought the business five years ago.
Already, though, his plan has hit a speedbump, and he smells a rat.
Sharma says he went to borough hall earlier this month to get a permit to reconnect the grill. Though he pulled the stove out when he moved in, the exhaust fan and vent system are still in place.
Borough officials rejected his request, telling him it wasn't permitted in the residential zone in which the business and its predecessors have been located for more than 90 years, by some estimates.
Hoping that the borough's own records would prove the grill had previously been approved, he asked officials to open their files. Nothing inside indicated any such grill, they told him.
So Sharma says he tracked down the paperwork himself, locating the vendor that installed the system when the store was owned by John Gentilucci and known as 'Johnny Gent's. Included was a certification of the grill and fire suppression system issued by the borough and dated December 17, 1986.
Back to the borough he went, but still to no avail. Planning director Donna Smith Barr wrote Sharma a letter telling him that he'd have to apply to the zoning board for a determination that the grill was a pre-existing, non-conforming use.
"How can you deny something that already was approved?" Sharma asks, incredulous.
"Building permits are not zoning approvals," Smith Barr tells redbankgreen. "To me, it's a zoning board matter, not something I can decide."
The fee to apply for the determination: $1,000. And if the board rules against him and he still wants to move forward, Sharma would have to apply for a variance.
Meaning he'd have to notice his neighbors, some of whom spent considerable energy trying to shut down his package goods business. Architect and attorney fees would likely add $7,000 to the tab, he estimates.
And make no mistake, the zoning board is absolutely going to rule against him, Sharma says. He's "one-hundred percent" certain of it, given the way he says he's been demonized by the council and the objectors to his liquor store.
Still, one may wonder if Sharma is putting the cart before the horse, or perhaps being a bit paranoid, given that he hasn't spoken to his neighbors about his plans. Why hasn't he?
"They don't like the idea that I'm still here," he says. "Their whole point was to get rid of the store. Not the liquor store the whole store. Sooner or later, they'll find a way to complain about the grocery business here, too."
We asked John Tyler Jr., the two-time GOP council candidate who spearheaded the fight against the liquor store, if he would object to Sharma operating a grill.
"I really don't know this is the first I'm hearing about it," Tyler said. He added that he'd be open to the idea if Sharma "worked with the neighbors to see if he can stop the problems" that have persisted since the cessation of alcohol sales, such as patrons blasting music on their car stereos and littering the street.
"I have nothing against the guy," Tyler added, "just the liquor store."
But John Ross, who lives across the street from the store, says the block has been "unbelievably quiet" since booze sales stopped. "It's a night-and-day situation," he said.
Ross said he's open-minded to Sharma's plan, which he hadn't previously heard about.
"Everybody has a right to make a living," he said. "I'm not here to put Sunny out of business. I'm just here to ask that people co-exist as neighbors."
Sharma says all he wants is to work so he can pay off his debts. The liquor store battle is over, and he lost, he says. "I can bitch, bitch bitch, but I want to move on.
"I'm a working man, and I proved it for so long," he continues. "I just want to come in at seven in the morning, seven days a week. All I'm asking is let me work in peace."