More than 50 residents filled the borough council chambers Monday night for a chance to be heard on two separate hot-button issues in town. (Photo by Dustin Racioppi; click to enlarge)
By DUSTIN RACIOPPI
Fair Haven officials got a double helping of discontent Monday night when a riled crowd pushed back on two issues residents say threaten the borough’s way of life: tree chopping and senior housing.
Following the recent decimation of trees on Poplar Avenue, neighbors laced into the council for not giving them notice that the 12 trees would be cut down and for allowing the property owner to take an ax to Fair Haven’s cherished scenery.
They disputed the effectiveness of the borough’s tree ordinance, yelled that the council was wrong to allow the trees to be cut down against the advice of the shade tree commission.
But an increasingly contentious plan to create an overlay district so a local developer might build age-restricted homes generated even more bile.
Perhaps sensing the ire pulsing through the area of his proposed development, builder Kevin Hughes sent a letter to the council prior to the meeting saying that he won’t move forward with the project until he meets with neighbors to hear their concerns.
Those same people, though, wanted to get their complaints on record, and spent more than an hour taking trips before the council to air them.
Chuck Cocuzza kicked it off by presenting a 100-plus signature petition against Hughes’s plan to build 10 cottage-style homes on Colonial Court, a narrow cul-de-sac between Hance Avenue and Smith Street. He called it the “Something’s Fishy in Fair Haven Project.”
Cocuzza, who lives on Colonial Court, suggested that there was a conflict of interest between Hughes and Mayor Mike Halfacre because the two work in the same building, but separate offices, in Little Silver a charge that prompted Halfacre to recuse himself from the discussion, but one that borough officials warned was dangerous territory for Cocuzza to get into.
“I have a problem with the origin of this project,” Cocuzza said. “The origin came from this office, this single door that they walk in together every morning. That is astronomical odds that they didn’t talk to each other about this.”
“The inference is ugly,” councilman Jim Banahan said. “When you start talking about some sort of deal, you have to be very careful.”
Other residents complained that if the development were to ever be approved, it would detract from the homey, small-town vibe of the area. Some felt that packing 10 homes into such a small space would also be contrary to the borough’s master plan.
“I think we need to maintain the integrity of Fair Haven as it is,” said Pat Finaldi, who lives on Hance. “Senior housing is one thing. Ruining the look of the neighborhood’s a completely different situation.”
Finaldi, like others, is also upset that there was no notification to immediate neighbors that this plan was presented to the council. But since there was never any formal application Hughes came to the planning board and council weeks ago to float the idea of creating an overlay zone to allow a higher density in the area notice wasn’t required, council members explained.
Environmental, traffic and tax impacts were also brought up as factors that make the project a dud for nearby residents.
“Trees. Environment,” Donna Steiner said in her argument against the project. ” And for heaven’s sake, the idea is to preserve the nature of Fair Haven as it exists.”
Despite the council’s goal to provide more affordable housing to the borough’s seniors, it appeared that support for the Hughes plan was dwindling behind the dais.
Councilman Jerome Koch wasn’t in favor of the proposal from the start, and questioned whether the council should move forward, given the backlash from the public. Bob Marchese, who made it a goal to provide more senior housing when he was campaigning last year, admitted that this project might not be a good fit.
“I love the concept,” he said. “I hate the location.”
Marchese was also disappointed, he said, that Hughes was a no-show on Monday night. Residents questioned how genuine Hughes’s letter was.
“Mr. Hughes wants to talk to us. We just said what we feel,” Cocuzza said. “Why wouldn’t he be here?”
Residents may get their chance to hash out their concerns with Hughes, though. The council unanimously voted that, if Hughes decides to hire a planner for the project, which is the next step in the process, all residents within a 200-foot radius of the property will be notified so they can be heard at a public meeting.