By JOHN T. WARD
The cliches compete: it’s tempting to say Donna Smith Barr has had a front-row seat on Red Bank’s two-decade-long bounceback from “Dead Bank” to today’s bustling burg. But it’s probably more accurate to say she’s been the gatekeeper.
Whether you wanted to put a deck on your house or turn a downtown store into a restaurant, Barr’s office has been the first stop at borough hall. And if she spoke or wrote the word “variance” in response, it probably wasn’t your last, as it would mean the time and expense of making one’s case before the zoning or planning board.
“I’m glad I don’t have to tell people they need variances anymore,” Barr told redbankgreen Tuesday. A single instance is one thing, “but when you do it for 26 years, that’s enough.”
On Thursday, Barr is scheduled to work her last day a borough employee, heading off for a weeklong cruise before getting back to work as a real estate agent – which is what she was doing in 1988 when the market took a nosedive and she ended up working part-time as the secretary to the planning board in the administration of Mayor Mike Arnone.
“I knew nothing about land use,” she said. Then-borough engineer Rich Kosenski, of T&M Associates, “used to talk to me in this foreign language – I had no idea what he was talking about.” But with Kosenski’s help, she said, she began picking up on the arcane lingo of sideyard setbacks and floor-area-ratios.
When then-Mayor Ed McKenna created the planning and zoning office five years later, Barr got the job of zoning officer, having buttressed her on-the-job training with classes sponsored by the New Jersey Association of Planning and Zoning Administrators. Though they’re not required, Barr has certifications in three specialties.
Quite literally, the position gave Barr the closest and most detailed view of what was going into the ground as downtown Red Bank emerged from economically dark years, starting in 1991 with the project that is generally agreed to have kickstarted the revival: the Merrill Lynch office at Broad Street and Linden Place, built on a corner that then housed Wilfred’s Beauty Academy, a forlorn McDonald’s and Lerner’s dress shop.
Soon, applications were coming through her office so quickly that resolutions of approval were being dictated and voted on at the planning and zoning meetings, Barr said. Today, the resolutions are usually crafted and massaged for a vote two weeks or more after a plan has been tentatively approved.
“They wanted to fast-track them,” Barr said. “They wanted a department to help people through the process.”
To those who don’t feel they were fast-tracked, Barr said, “I was handed an ordinance book and told to abide by it. That was my job, and I had to treat everyone the same.”
Jay Herman, a principal in Downtown Investors, which built the Merrill Lynch project and numerous other projects in the business district, said Barr “was by-the-book, but you could rely on her to give you an honest and accurate response on behalf of the borough.”
The reality, Barr said, is that only a small fraction of development permit applications require variances. But she understands the frustrations of those who need them, because even obtaining one is not the end of the process. Homeowners and developers must then run the gauntlet at the building department for a range of permits and inspections as their plans are brought to life.
Herman said Barr’s departure creates a serious void at borough hall, and not only because she’s been efficient and accommodating.
“She was in charge of administering the rules, not making them,” said Herman. “And she grew into the job. Our big fear is that there’s no one who knows the rules as well as she does. People won’t even know what rules to look up, let alone how to interpret them.”
Barr’s successor has not yet been named. And there’s no big payout for unused sick and vacation time awaiting her, she said.
Barr, a lifelong Rumson resident who’s a mother to three adult children and has a grandson and 11 step-grandchildren, said she recently renewed her real estate license and has been easing back into the field in her free time.
In “retirement,” she also plans to indulge her love of photography and just relax.
“I’m going to the beach,” she said. “I bought a season pass in Sea Bright.”