DISBAND ZONING BOARD, COUNCILMAN SAYS

b-lucarelliBy DUSTIN RACIOPPI

Fair Haven Councilman Ben Lucarelli (right) has been in the construction and real estate business more than 20 years, and in that time has appeared before countless zoning board all over the state.

None has treated applicants as badly as Fair Haven’s, he said.

So after attending last week’s zoning meeting, and being completely appalled by its members’ actions, Lucarelli has made a bold proposal: disband the board and fold its duties into the planning board’s authority.

“I was appalled at the arrogant, condescending, mean-spirited nature of the zoning board,” he said. “This was just a very bad example of how the residents of Fair Haven are being treated.”

And nobody on the council, which at least once before tried to disband the nine-member board, disagreed.

Because pending applications before the zoning board may be appealed to the council, Lucarelli said he would not get into specifics of what happened at the meeting. Among the agenda items were a request to build a swimming pool at a home on Forrest Avenue and another for an addition to a residence on Katherine Street.

In general, though, Lucarelli called the board’s behavior “unacceptable.”

“What I witnessed Thursday night was, really, the death of common sense,” said Lucarelli, who is president of a Red Bank-based construction company.

The board focused in on details and numbers without applying common sense, he said. The way members treated applicants was disrespectful and arrogant, he said.

That’s not unusual, Mayor Mike Halfacre said.

About three or four years ago, he said the council considered disbanding the zoning board for similar reasons, but after pleas from members, the idea was tabled.

“I do get a lot of complaints about the zoning board, and just the process,” he said. “It’s just a Byzantine process, and no matter how much I speak to people about it, it just doesn’t get any better.”

But rather than “pull the trigger” and do away with the board, Halfacre proposed a “mini summit” with members from all three bodies to hash out the concerns from the council and residents.

A  problem with the zoning board is its members’ understanding of its duties, Halfacre said. The role of the board is to allow or deny variances, and not much else, he said.

“The name is the zoning board of adjustment. It’s there to adjust things. It’s not the zoning board of denials,” he said. “And unfortunately, it becomes the zoning board of denials in Fair Haven.”

Susan O’Brien, who is a zoning board member, took umbrage at the council’s depiction of the board and its actions. She said Thursday’s meeting was not an ordinary meeting, and the board is constrained by laws that the council has drafted and been unwilling to change — an assertion Halfacre disagrees with.

But O’Brien acknowledged, “often, yes, we push back because they’re asking for the moon and the stars.”

“I think you got the wrong impression, to be perfectly honest,” she said.

If there are problems with the board or any of its members, O’Brien said it needs to be brought to them before it hits a boiling point, which it appeared to after Thursday’s meeting. That’s the purpose of the summit, Halfacre said.

“Something has to be done,” Councilman Jerome Koch said. “And it’s not going to be easy.”