RED BANK: HAMPTON INN WINS APPROVAL

Peter Steck, a planner hired by an opponent of the proposed hotel, testified that the developer was “stuffing” the one-acre site. (Photo by John T. Ward. Click to enlarge)

By JOHN T. WARD

After nearly seven years of battles, a proposed hotel at the northernmost entrance to Red Bank won approval Monday night.

The planning board’s OK of a six-story, 76-room Hampton Inn at the foot of the Route 35 Cooper’s Bridge came after a last-minute concession by the developer.

Developer Larry Cohen withdrew a proposed traffic element that one board member said would lead to fatal accidents. (Photo by John T. Ward. Click to enlarge)

That concession was a stipulation by builder Larry Cohen that he would not seek New Jersey Department of Transportation approval to create a turning lane to allow vehicles heading northbound on Route 35 to make a left turn into the hotel property, the site of a long-vacant Exxon station.

The prospect of allowing those turns prompted planning board member Guy Maratta to flatly proclaim in November that he wouldn’t vote for the hotel plan as long as the turning lane — which he termed “dangerous” — was part of it. “Somebody is going to die, mark my words,” Maratta said at the time.

Indeed, Ron Gasiorowski, an attorney hired by a competing business hotel to fight the plan, produced as witnesses a traffic expert and a planner who both envisioned traffic accidents resulting from the plan.

Cohen’s capitulation came as board members were debating a motion to approve the hotel. Maratta had revived his objection, prompting Cohen to whisper to his attorney, Marty McGann, to withdraw the turning plan from the proposal.

With that, Maratta voted in favor of approval. Only board member Lou DiMento voted no: he said the hotel, one a triangular one-acre site overlooking the Navesink River, “just doesn’t fit in this spot.

“I’ve been mulling over this for seven years now,” he said, hoping the plan would be reduced by 20 hotel rooms and several floors, but was disappointed that after extended litigation and other delays, the plan was unchanged when the latest round of hearings began in November.

Board member and borough Administrator Stanley Sickels warned the board that eliminating the turn lane would not stop motorists from waiting to cross several lanes of southbound traffic “illegally,” creating a hazard of vehicles queueing in the northbound lanes of the highway. Still, he too voted for the overall plan.

Only one borough resident spoke against the plan: Ben Forest of Locust Avenue, who called approval “an obvious error.”

“We’re all going to be driving past this for the next 20 years asking, ‘how did we approve this?'” Forest said.

Cohen told redbankgreen that he still faced possible months of review by the DOT and the state Department of Environmental Protection before he could start construction.