SEA BRIGHT: MAD HATTER PLAN DRAWS FIRE

The owner of the Mad Hatter, which is slated for demolition, is seeking permission to operate in a tent in the municipal beach lot this summer. (Photo by Wil Fulton. Click to enlarge)

By WIL FULTON

A request by a popular Sea Bright sports bar to temporarily move to the borough beach while it rebuilds its storm-battered home is drawing complaints from owners of other business.

The Mad Hatter, which has been closed since Hurricane Sandy hit on October 29, approached borough officials earlier this week with a request to operate this summer out of a 400-person tent that would be erected in the municipal parking lot at Ocean Avenue and River Street.

But operators of nearby business say allowing the move would cost them valuable parking spaces as they, too, struggle back to their feet.

Like every other business in downtown Sea Bright, the Mad Hatter, located on the beach side of Ocean Avenue, was rendered uninhabitable by Hurricane Sandy, which crashed through its oceanfront tiki bar and left several feet of sand inside. The building in which it is housed, which backs up against the sea wall, is slated for demolition.

On the bar’s Facebook page, owners Scott and Amy Kelly recently reiterated a pledge to rebuild at the same location with “multiple decks and dining areas with ocean views” and a targeted reopening in the spring of 2014.

In the interim, the Kellys this week asked the borough for clearance to  erect a tent on part of the municipal parking lot, east of the library along the site of the old guardhouse – a spot currently occupied by Mount Sandy.

At a workshop meeting of the borough council Tuesday night, Mayor Dina Long said the proposal had only been brought up earlier in the day.

Several business owners in attendance, however, voiced opposition, saying  the bar would take up parking spots in a town that has had parking problems for years in normal conditions.

“Parking in Sea Bright has always been paramount to Sea Bright businesses,” said Karen Trezza, who said she spoke on behalf of other business owners as well. “We simply can’t afford to lose any parking spots. This isn’t a new issue in Sea Bright.”

Opponents also raised concerns about alcohol being served beachside on municipal property.

Councilman Marc Leckstein voiced support for the proposal, saying that he believes the council should do everything it can to help out a local business that wishes  to remain in Sea Bright. He said an approval might open doors for other businesses that wanted to take part in similar temporary projects.

“Situations like this call for extreme measures,” he said. “Some businesses can’t afford to be out for a year.”

“I would personally hate for us to even lose one business,” said Long, “and I think we’ve lost too many already.”

Borough Administrator Joseph Verruni said the Mad Hatter plan calls for a tent measuring 80 by 100 feet, with a capacity of about 400 persons – 70 to 80 more than the Mad Hatter was permitted to have – to remain in place for 180 days, serving food and drinks. A separate kitchen trailer and portable restrooms would be installed, he said.

Verruni and borough Attorney Pat McNamara discussed a long list of bureaucratic hurdles the bar would have to clear, including approval by the state Alcoholic Beverage Control agency and compliance with Monmouth County health and safety codes, acquiring insurance coverage to protect the borough and more.

McNamara said there would not be enough time for the Mad Hatter to “jump through all these loops” before the summer season begins.

“They have a million hurdles to jump through to make this happen,” Verruni said. “Asking [the council] for a yes is only the first step.”

Verruni and Long also noted that a public hearing would be needed before the council votes on the request.