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RED BANK: REDEVELOPMENT PLANS ADVANCE

55-w-front-070616-500x375-5101180The West Front Street site where a 35-unit apartment building was rejected by the zoning board last year could end up with new zoning, a planning attorney said. (Photo by John T. Ward. Click to enlarge)

By JOHN T. WARD

hot-topic_03-220x138-2130637Two Red Bank properties cleared a key hurdle toward possible redevelopment Wednesday night.

One is the borough-owned White Street parking lot, where merchants and town officials envision a parking garage.

The other is a privately owned site that several commenters, including two board members, said shouldn’t even have been part of the discussion.

bayer-labetti-rodriguez-070616-500x375-9761208Elm Place resident Tom Labetti, center, addresses the planning board as planning consultant Anthony Rodriguez, right, listens. Below, an aerial photo delineating 55 West Front Street and the White Street lot in red. (Photos by John T. Ward. Click to enlarge)

rb-parking-070616-220x165-4162921By a 5-2 vote, the board found that both the 2.3-acre White Street lot and the three-quarter-acre 55 West Front Street met the criteria for designation as a single “noncondemnation redevelopment area” under a state law signed by Governor Chris Christie in 2013.

The vote followed brief testimony by planning consultant Anthony Rodriguez of CME Associates, who was hired by the board to study the sites for their suitability as redevelopment candidates.

He said he found the existing layout of the White Street site “obsolete — the surface parking there does not meet peak demand,” testimony that elicited no dispute from board members or the public.

In addition, Rodriguez said his “thorough analysis” of the second site found, among other factors, “a lack of maintenance,” trash accumulation and other detriments that add up to an “attractive nuisance.”

The property, which has a driveway to White Street opposite the borough parking lot, “really diminishes the character of the borough in that neighborhood,” Rodriguez said.

Here’s the report: RB CME Redevelopment Study 2016

The site, formerly home to a nursing facility owned by Meridian Health and demolished in 2008, won approvals in 2007 for a 27-unit condo project.

An entity called 55 West Front LLC, owned by Joseph Shabot, Ralph Braha and Steven Zakaria, acquired the site in 2008 for $4.5 million, according to Monmouth County records. Their proposal, for a 35-unit apartment building, was rejected by the Red Bank zoning board in March. Within a week, at Mayor Pasquale Menna’s request, the council had added the site to the White Street lot for consideration as redevelopment candidates.

But board members Juanita Lewis and Barbara Boas questioned the linkage of the two sites under one vote. And several commenters from the public challenged it as well.

Architect Mike Simpson, who participated in the drafting of the 1995 Master Plan, said he was “very, very puzzled by the inclusion of 55 West Front” into the discussion of the parking lot.

“There is an approval for 55,” he said, referring to the 2007 condo plan. The owner’s choice not to act on that approval “is more of a business decision,” one that shouldn’t involve the “public’s largesse” to address, he said.

Tom Labetti, of Elm Place, said another developer, Ray Rapcavage, had a housing plan rejected by the zoning board, but “has gone through the appropriate boards, worked with the public” without resorting to the redevelopment designation. In fact, Rapcavage was in the audience because he was scheduled to present revised plans to the board.

“What you are doing in essence is giving away power” to control decisionmaking, Labetti said. “The whole purpose of this is to supercede zoning laws.”

As for the finding that 55 West Front needs redevelopment, “it’s unsightly, but it simply doesn’t fit the criteria for designation,” said Richard Pepsny, a lawyer for the Morgan family, which owns the former firehouse at 40 White Street, which abuts 55 West Front.

The designation is expected to trigger bureaucratic volleying between the borough council and planning board over the possible creation of one new “overlay” zones specifically for those properties, said special borough redevelopment attorney Andrew Bayer.

First, the council would have to adopt the planning board’s findings, and propose a new redevelopment zone, he said. That in turn would have to be ratified by the planning board before the council could hold adoption hearings.

An earlier report by CME recommended the redevelopment route as a means for the borough to attract a private developer of a parking garage.

Regarding 55 West Front, Bayer said, “the property owner would then have the opportunity to come before this board for a site plan approval,” he said.

Casting her no vote, Boas said that “including a piece of private property is a slippery slope.” Lewis voted not without comment.

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