By JOHN T. WARD
The issue, concerning a former nursing home site at 55 West Street, prompted sharp disagreement among board members that mirrored divisions at recent council meetings, with proponents arguing the measure is needed to end a long vacancy and opponents calling it an “end-around” to a zoning board decision.
“It just stinks,” planning board member and former Councilman Art Murphy said of the measure.
Planning board members Guy Marotta, left, and Dan Mancuso were on the short side of the 5-4 vote. Below, an 55 West Front Street as seen from Riverside Gardens Park. (Photos by John T. Ward. Click to enlarge)
On the table was a proposed redevelopment plan for the site, prepared at the council’s direction by planning consultant Anthony Rodriguez of CME Associates, but to be paid for by the property owner, of 55 West Front Street.
After a tiebreaker vote by Mayor Pasquale Menna, who has championed the proposal, the council sent to the plan to the planning board last month with the directive that it be reviewed for consistency with the town’s Master Plan and for other comments.
With the board’s approval, the plan now goes back to the council for possible adoption, with the expectation that it will yield a new “overlay” zone with land use limitations specific to the site.
The three-quarter-acre 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. But an entity called 55 West Front LLC, which bought the site in 2008 for $4.5 million, went to the zoning board earlier this year with a new proposal, calling for a 35-unit apartment building, a change the owners said was necessitated by a change in market conditions.
The new plan, however, was rejected by the Red Bank zoning board as “too dense” in March. Within a week, at Menna’s request, the council had put the property into play for consideration as redevelopment candidates, “noncondemnation redevelopment area” under a state law signed by Governor Chris Christie in 2013.
As it has at prior council and planning board meetings, the issue proved divisive Monday night. After planning consultant Anthony Rodriguez of CME Associates, who was hired by the council to draft the redevelopment plan, pronounced it consistent with the Master Plan, board vice chairman Dan Mancuso pressed him on whether he could be expected to give any other opinion.
“We hired the professionals who knew the answer we wanted,” he said. “Can you think of any circumstance in which you would write a redevelopment plan that you couldn’t find a way to weave into the Master Plan?”
“It really feels like we’re doing something just for this builder because they don’t want to build what can fit there,” he said.
Menna said he “objected to the innuendo that [Rodriguez] was told what to do, because nobody told him what to do. He read the law and prepared the report.”
Administrator Stanley Sickels and Councilman Mike Whelan, who also sit on the planning board, defended the use of the redevelopment law as a “tool” to enable towns to put fallow properties to use as valuable ratables. Board member Linda Cohen, who owns an eyeglass store downtown, was particular vehement in support.
“We’re literally chasing people away from developing in our community,” which needs more residents downtown to bolster the economy, she said.
Guy Marotta, however, said the action would allow the developer to “bypass an agency that’s here for the people of Red Bank,” referring to the zoning board.
“I am not going to, for the sake of a builder, cram 10 pounds into a 5-pound bag,” he said. “We have a clean slate with a vacant property. We can do it right.”
“It’s a shame it’s gone down this path,” said Murphy. “The zoning board has made its determination. It just stinks.”
The motion to approve the document won yes votes from Menna, Sickels, Whelan, Cohen and Lou DiMento. Mancuso, Marotta, Murphy and Barbara Boas voted no.