By JOHN T. WARD
Two months after the Red Bank zoning board ruled that a proposed hotel on the site of a former Exxon station exceeded the height limit for its zone, the town’s governing body boosted the limit Wednesday night.
After a contentious hearing that was widely seen as a prelude to a third lawsuit over zoning changes affecting the site the of the proposed Hampton Inn, the borough council gave unanimous approval to a trio of ordinance amendments, one of which would allow a building 82.4 feet tall, or seven stories, in the zone.
Though characterized by council members and council Attorney Dan O’Hern as an attempt to clarify rules affecting the town’s entire waterfront development zone, the most immediate impact of the change is eliminate the most significant obstacle to the proposed hotel, eyed for the juncture of Route 35 and Rector Place at the foot of Cooper’s Bridge.
“I, too, am of the opinion that we need another hotel here, one that is affordable,” Councilman Mike DuPont said after sparring repeatedly with the attorney representing the hotel’s foremost objector.
Called on to interpret whether developer Rbank Capital needed a variance while planning board review of the hotel plan was well underway, the zoning board determined in May that the proposed six-story, 72-room hotel, at 82.2 feet tall, was subject to a 60-foot height limit, as measured from the mean high tide level of the adjoining Navesink River.
The issue had elicited competing assertions over which roadway the one-acre hotel property fronted on. The question turned out to be crucial, because the formula for determining a structure’s height called for a drawing a line between the river and the “nearest parallel roadway” and finding the midpoint.
Rbank’s experts said the line should be drawn to Route 35, though it runs perpendicular to the river, which would allow for the greater height. Borough resident Stephen Mitchell, through attorney Ron Gasiorowski, maintained that the Exxon property, though it had just 47 feet of frontage along Rector Place, had historically been considered on Rector, and that even Rbank had not objected to this address when zoning amendments were enacted in 2009.
The zoning board, without addressing the merits of the Rbank plan, agreed that the property fronted on Rector, and ruled that the hotel plan would require a use variance, available only through the zoning board, which has stiffer standards under state land-use laws than planning boards.
The council, acting on a subsequent request by the zoning board that the ordinance be clarified, responded with three amendments, based on recommendations from town planner Richard Cramer. One removed all the properties along the north side of Rector Place except the hotel site from the waterfront development zone; another placed them into a residential zone, reflecting the fact that they’re all one-and two-family homes.
The third called for imposing a height cap of 75 feet throughout the waterfront zone, replacing language that set caps of 50, 75 and 140 feet, depending on the location and other variables. The law also allows an upward deviation from the cap of 10 percent before a variance is required.
Cramer said Wednesday that the latest change “creates a standard that is clear and easy to apply,” and several officials, including DuPont and Mayor Pasquale Menna, characterized the change as a reduction in height for future construction.
Gasiorowski, though, who has two lawsuits pending against the borough over its treatment of the Rbank property, contends the change increases the limit on the Exxon site. A planner he hired, Gordon Gemma, said it does so without changing any setback requirements.
With the change, the council was “allowing a 75-foot building ten feet away from a single-family home,” Gemma testified. He questioned whether allowing a building that tall next to single-family and two-family homes was consistent with the intent of the town’s master plan.
DuPont frequently interrupted Gasiorowski, noting that while the attorney represented Mitchell, Gasiorowski’s fees were paid by the owners of the DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel on Hope Road in Tinton Falls, a fact Gasiorowski reluctantly disclosed in March after months of resisting calls to identify a mystery backer.
“What I have an interest in is in protecting the businesses and residents of Red Bank,” DuPont said.
Moments later, however, Patricia Borelli, whose house is “one home away” from the hotel lot, said that while “Red Bank deserves a decent, affordable hotel,” the law changes would allow one too big next to a residential zone.
“Do I really want to walk out of my home to find an 85-foot-high building?” she asked.
Rbank managing partner Larry Cohen praised the change. “Having a uniform height throughout a uniform zone would give us clarity,” he said.