The crumbling library bulkhead, above right, abuts that of the Corinthian Cove condos, at left. Below, resident Tom Labetti of Elm Place makes a point during the public hearing. (Photos by John T. Ward. Click to enlarge)
By SARAH KLEPNER
The tide turned abruptly on the Red Bank Eisner Memorial Library bulkhead issue Wednesday.
A $600,000 bond ordinance to pay for a new bulkhead at the site, and one at another Navesink River property, was tabled at the eleventh hour, after having appeared headed to certain approval.
The tabling followed defections by two councilmembers, Kathy Horgan and Ed Zipprich, who said they would side with environmentalists and residents who called for a “living,” or structure-free, shoreline.
“I think we need to explore the issue more,” Horgan said. “During the superstorm, any living shoreline had very little damage and self-repaired itself very quickly.” She also noted that the Stevens Institute of Technology and the American Littoral Society had previously offered to create the natural shoreline, at no cost to the borough.
The borough’s Environmental Commission, with the support of environmental non-profit organizations and university programs, had spent over two years developing plans for a living shoreline at the site. But those plans appeared doomed last year by a literal reading of the 1937 deed for the property from the Eisner family, which calls for “keeping the bulkhead in good repair.”
Failure to meet that provision could trigger a clause in the deed requiring that the property be sold, with the proceeds handed over to the endowment for Harvard University, according to borough Attorney Dan O’Hern.
Horgan’s advocacy for a natural shore was echoed by a series of speakers, including members of the Environmental Commission; a resident challenging the borough officials to live up to its ‘Hip City’ moniker; and a father of two young children who urged the council to allow the town’s children to “experience” their river without a barrier.
John Grandits, president of the library’s board of trustees, said the board would go along with any decision the council reached. Speaking as a resident, though, Grandits urged the governing body to pause the matter for a month “so we can muster some forces” and find out if, in fact, Harvard would sue to get the property should the bulkhead be removed.
In response to a question, O’Hern said he had not reached out to Harvard or the Eisner family, though it was unclear who, if anyone, among the Eisner heirs might have standing to represent the interests of the original estate.
“I don’t usually come to these meetings, but this week jumped out at me,” said Brian Donohue of Bank Street, a video reporter for the Star-Ledger. “In my work as a journalist covering Hurricane Sandy, I realize that geologists and the DEP [Department of Environmental Protection] are encouraging living shorelines as a way of increasing resilience to future storms.
“And I’d like to ask you to look through the eyes of my kids who go down to the river on the West Side and see a dump area. They go downtown and see a bulkhead. They don’t have any sense, living in this town, of what it really looks like,” Donohue continued.
“Once in a while, you have a chance to make a difference in a little kid’s life. When we’re all dead and gone, your time up here on the dais will have been worth something if you can make a few of those decisions. This seems to me like this could be one of those.”
The threat of legal action, however, was embodied by the presence of Mike Vitiello, a lawyer for Corinthian Cove, the upscale condos next door to the library, who reminded the council that riverfront property owners have an obligation to their neighbors not to cause erosion.
He was followed by Environmental Commission member Boris Kofman, who presented material from the DEP in support of living shorelines to prevent erosion and provide flood protection in the wake of Hurricane Sandy.
Frank Corrado, who earlier in the meeting had been appointed to the Environmental Commission as an alternate member, talked about being a young renter the river.
“During Sandy, I saw what happened” along Rector Place, Corrado said. “The backyard of the house next door with a natural shoreline was unaffected, while my backyard which is bulkheaded was destroyed. The water came up on both sides, but the shoreline next door absorbed it.”
Corrado, who is buying a home on Oakland Street, also said the prospect of spending money for a bulkhead when there’s a cheaper option gives “gives pause for me. As first-time homebuyer, I want to make sure common sense is being used in all this.”
During the council discussion after public comment, several council members reiterated legal concerns. Then, councilman Ed Zipprich joined Horgan in opposing the bond issue.
“It’s time to start greening the town,” said Zipprich, the Democratic candidate for a state 11th-district Assembly seat. “I remind myself a lot that I was elected to represent the members of the community. If the people speak loudly enough, we have to be the voice.”
Mayor Pasquale Menna noted that, under state law covering bond issues, a supermajority of four council members was necessary for the measure to pass. With ‘no’ votes looming by two of the six council members, and the bond having been moved for a final vote, Councilman Mike DuPont suggested tabling it in order to reach out to Harvard.
DuPont said he had been planning to vote for the bond issue, but the public comment made him realize that there were unexplored avenues.
“Mr. Donohue is right we’re only here for a short period of time. We in Red Bank have never been intimidated by legal arguments. We have to do what’s best for the whole town,” DuPont said.
Even Council President Art Murphy, acknowledging he had been one of the strongest proponents of the bulkhead, assented to the tabling.
“I have to agree with the councilman [DuPont] about the 30 days,” Murphy said. “What’s 30 days? We’ve been waiting two years. We should’ve killed the cow two years ago.”