BATTLE OVER HOTEL HEIGHT DRAGS ON

A planned six-story hotel at the longtime site of an Exxon station is the subject of a hearings at both the planning and zoning boards.   (Click to enlarge)

By JOHN T. WARD

An opponent of a planned hotel at the foot of the Route 35 Cooper’s Bridge made his fullest case yet Thursday night that the building violates Red Bank’s height limits.

But after two slow-moving, trial-like hearings before the town zoning board, the lawyer for the hotel has barely begun to put on his defense, and no resolution of the dispute is likely for at least another month.

James Freeman, an engineering consultant and witness for objector Stephen Mitchell, identifies the proposed hotel site on an aerial photo. (Click to enlarge)

In one of the more bizarre building requests to confront town officials in recent years, Rbank Capital LLC’s plan for a six-story, 72-room Hampton Inn hotel is the subject of two simultaneous hearings, both involving the same opposing lawyers and battalions of engineers and land-use experts.

The first, underway at the planning board since August, concerns whether the hotel can be built as described.

The other, at the zoning board, is solely about the interpretation of the height restriction in the waterfront development zone in which the hotel property lies, and ultimately, whether the planning board is in fact the proper venue for the plan.

The matter is critical because zoning boards are generally believed by land use experts to present tougher hurdles for applicants.

Stephen Mitchell, of Prospect Avenue, maintains that the hotel violates the zone’s height limit, defined as 50 feet above the nearby Navesink River at a point on a line drawn between the river and the nearest street parallel to the river.

Through his lawyer, Ron Gasiorowski, Mitchell also contends that because of an error by borough Engineer Christine Ballard, of T&M Associates, in applying the ordinance a year ago, the case was improperly sent to the planning board.

With his fees being paid by a previously undisclosed hotel-owning group out of Tinton Falls, Gasiorowski called two witnesses Thursday night – engineer James Freeman and planner Gordon Gemma – who testified that while the ordinance is vague on some of its terms, the Hampton Inn, at 82.25 feet above the nearby Navesink River, exceeds the height limitation by more than 32 feet.

Gemma said he examined the town’s 1995 master plan, as well as a waterfront “vision plan” that preceded it, for guidance on  the intent of the ordinance.

Clearly, he told the board, “the purpose of what you wanted to do was to make sure that there weren’t big buildings that close to the river. The whole point is to have a step-back from the river” to enable passersby to enjoy the sight of the river.

Noting that a corner of the proposed hotel is bisected by a line drawn between Rector Place – one of only four streets named in defining the landward edge of the zone – and the rive, Gemma testified: “That portion of the building that is above 50 feet doesn’t belong there.”

Hampton Inn lawyer Marty McGann, whose verbal clashes with Gasiorowski have previously been a hallmark of the planning board hearings and have continued here, drew a loud objection from his adversary when he suggested that Freeman had “willy-nilly, without any basis or semblance of authority,” chosen where to measure the height of the hotel.

Gemma has already been tripped up on his testimony twice: once, by Ballard, after he said that in the ordinance, “height” and “elevation” are synonymous, and later by McGann, who challenged Gemma’s assertion that he had attended all of the planning board hearings on the matter. Pressed under cross-examination, Gemma acknowledged that his may have missed “one or two” of the hearings.

The zoning board hearing was scheduled to continue April 19.