By JOHN T. WARD
Fair Haven residents peppered the borough council Tuesday night with questions about an ambitious plan to build a new town hall, consolidate operations and sell real estate.
The questions appeared to reflect a sense that residents were caught off guard by the scope of the project, which was first reported by redbankgreen Monday.
A view of the proposed borough hall site, looking west on River Road. Below, Council President Jon Peters and Mayor Ben Lucarelli at Tuesday’s council meeting. (Photos by John T. Ward. Click to enlarge.)
Several dozen residents packed the first public meeting following the announcement, late Friday, that the council was pursuing the acquisition of the former Sunoco station, at the corner of River Road and Cedar Avenue, with an eye toward building a new three-story borough hall and police station there.
Under the proposal, the borough will try to buy the station, and if Sunoco balks, the town would invoke eminent domain to acquire it.
Mayor Ben Lucarelli said the borough has been unable to get a response from Sunoco, despite multiple phone calls and certified letters. The site has been vacant for seven years, and was the subject of an aborted attempt by a developer to erect a bank there two years ago.
Lucarelli said the mutifaceted plan was driven in part by conditions at the town’s police station, a converted schoolhouse on Fisk Street. The station is “in an advanced state of disrepair”and “mold infested,” Lucarelli said, though he sought to assure the audience that the mold had not made its way into the attached community center.
The borough could spend up to $2 million addressing those and other shortcomings and still have a building with “unacceptable” wiring and plumbing, he said.
Under the plan, the police would occupy the first floor of a new borough hall; the community center would be moved to the existing town hall, where it would share space with the library; and the Fisk Street property would likely be sold, officials said.
The audience at Tuesday night’s semimonthly council session had no shortage of questions about the borough hall aspect of the plan. But residents also voiced uncertainty about the impact of a proposed equipment shed alongside the Fair Haven Fields ballfields and other elements of the proposal.
The plan calls for shrinking the footprint of the Public Works facility on Allen Street by shifting park-maintenance equipment to a proposed 2,000-square-foot equipment storage shed alongside the Fair Haven Fields ballfields. Parking for about 20 vehicles and restroom facilities could also be provided there, Lucarelli said.
DPW administration would be relocated to the new borough hall, though vehicle maintenance and other operations would remain. As with the police station move, one aim of the change is to reduce the impact of borough operations on residential neighborhoods, Lucarelli said.
More broadly, “the facilities we have in this borough are dated and they need replacement,” Lucarelli said, in response to a question from Mark Olson, of Cambridge Avenue. The police station and DPW projects “both need to happen, and the need is immediate,” he said.
“We’ve reached the point where our capital stock is pretty depleted,” said Council President Jon Peters, who heads the finance committee.
“It is a big move at one time,” he added, “but we’ve dragged this far ourselves this far at minimal cost, and now we’re at the point where, do you make the strategic investment to improve your facilities?”
Peters cited the town’s 1975 acquisition of the 77-acre property that became Fair Haven Fields, which now includes playing areas, tennis courts and a 40-acre nature reserve, as a similar forward-thinking project.
“The [officials] who bought that— what if they hadn’t done that?” Peters asked. “You’d really have a radically different community today. You have to think very carefully about what do we need for our future.”
In creating a new town hall, the borough won’t have to abide by its own zoning restrictions, nor seek variances from itself, and can exceed the two-story structure limit, Lucarelli said in response to several questions. But he said that project architect Eli Goldstein, of Maplewood, had indicated the overall height of the building will be comparable to two nearby two-story office buildings.
The building will also be “just off the sidewalk,” Lucarelli said in response to a question about whether it would meet setback requirements.
Several in the audience, including Melanie Landers and Katy Frissora, called on the mayor and council to do a better job of communicating with residents.
Lucarelli said the silence on the plan’s development was necessary.
“Until we got to the point, where we’re we’re ready to introduce and pass this ordinance, it would be inappropriate for us to say, in a public forum, ‘yeah, we’re going to do this on this piece of property,’ because we don’t have control over it,” Lucarelli said.
With the council authorized to move ahead, Lucarelli said Goldstein would come up with a concept plan for the new town hall, “and we’ll do a public presentation when they’re available” to solicit community input.
The firm lists a recent borough hall expansion in Atlantic Highlands in its portfolio.