By JOHN T. WARD
Eight months after they were rejected by the Red Bank zoning board, the owners of a vacant lot in downtown Red Bank can now try again to win approval for a 35-unit apartment building on the site.
That’s the upshot of an ordinance adopted by the borough council Monday night after yet another tiebreaker vote by Mayor Pasquale Menna.
The 3-3 council vote and mayoral tiebreaker followed the sixth council or planning board hearing related to the rezoning since the zoning board rejected the apartment plan for 55 West Front Street in March. All the hearings have been contentious, with opponents arguing that the site owners are being handed an “end-around” to the normal approval process, with repeated claims by some officials that the effort “stinks.”
Backers, however, say the New Jersey law under which the zoning change was adopted was designed to clear the way for fruitful use of properties that have been mired in red tape and other obstacles.
At Monday’s council meeting, the divisions followed the same lines they have since early summer, with councilmembers Linda Schwabenbauer, Mark Taylor and Mike Whelan in favor, and Kathy Horgan, Cindy Burnham and Ed Zipprich opposed. Menna, who has had to cast repeated tiebreakers on the issue, has championed the redevelopment.
Opponents to the change came under fire from downtown merchants, several of whom expressed frustration that the site sits vacant when there could be 35 or more tenants living there and shopping in the business district.
“It’s almost like there’s a conspiracy to stop growth,” Goldtinker owner Joe Romanowski told the council.
“It sounds like you’re insulted that the process wasn’t good for you,” downtown property owner Anthony Barbero told Burnham, Horgan and Zipprich. “You don’t like the way it was done. I don’t like the way nothing is getting done.”
“It’s called transparency,” Burnham replied, adding that she found it “a little appalling that there’s no affordable housing” requirement for the site — an assertion disputed by Andrew Baer, a land-use lawyer hired by the council.
The three-quarter-acre site, which extends from West Front Street to White Street, was previously owned by Meridian Health, which maintained a nursing facility there. In 2007, Joseph Shabot, Ralph Braha and Steven Zakariaf won approvals for a 27-unit condo project on the site, but returned to the zoning board in 2015 with the plan for rental units, citing changes in market conditions.
That plan, however, was rejected by the Red Bank zoning board as “too dense” in March.
With the zoning change, the owners can now refile their rejected plan or proposed something new. In either case, their plan would require planning board approval.