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RED BANK: ‘KITCH ORGANIC’ EYES LEIGHTON

best-groceryVacant for four years, the shop would get an interior and exterior sprucing up, with a raised-bed vegetable and herb garden out back. (Click to enlarge)

By JOHN T. WARD

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A former West Side building at the center of a long-running controversy involving booze, noise and angry neighbors could become the home of Red Bank’s first take-out-only organic restaurant.

Plans on file with the borough planning office call for a business called Kitch Organic to take over the former home of Best Liquors, at 75 Leighton Avenue – and bring a clean-slate approach to an eyesore building with some bad karma.

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BEST LIQUORS CASE TO RESUME

The Red Bank Borough Council has set June 14 as the resumption date of its hearing in the Best Liquors license matter.

The hearing, a special session of the council, will begin at 5p.

Borough Attorney Tom Hall, who is prosecuting the case, tells redbankgreen he expects that the hearing will conclude that night.

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SHARMA BUSTED ON IMMIGRATION WARRANT

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Sunny Sharma, a onetime Red Bank liquor retailer who was stripped of his license for selling booze to minors, has been arrested on an alleged immigration violation, redbankgreen has learned.

Red Bank police confirmed that Sharma was taken into custody at his Leighton Avenue grocery store Thursday afternoon on a warrant by officials from the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency.

Police had no additional information. A spokesman for ICE could not immediately be reached for comment on the reason for the arrest and Sharma’s status.

A witness tells redbankgreen that Sharma was led out of his store in handcuffs.

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SHARMA: ‘LET ME WORK IN PEACE’

SharmaThe shelves of Sunny Sharma's business, once stocked with hard liquor, now carry shaving cream and snacks. Milk and eggs have replaced beer as the products featured on the door. 

Sunny Sharma says he can't catch a break.

It's not a new feeling, certainly. Over the last couple of years, as he battled his Leighton Avenue neighbors and the Red Bank Council in a failed bid to keep his liquor license, Sharma says he's grown accustomed to being treated like a pariah. 

Best DeliBut with the war lost just a month ago and all the booze packed up and shipped out, he had hoped he could quietly turn his attention to the future and start recouping some of the hundreds of thousands of dollars that went toward legal fees, not to mention the equity that went up in smoke with the loss of the license.

His plan: turn Best Liquors & Food Mart into Best Deli & Food Mart. Build up a clientele by accepting food stamps for milk, bread and other staples, and supplement revenue by firing up a grill that was used at the store long before he bought the business five years ago.

Already, though, his plan has hit a speedbump, and he smells a rat.

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NEIGHBORS: BOOZE STORE WOES CONTINUE

Ross. johnJohn Ross addressing the Red Bank Council last night.

A decision on whether the borough can shut down Best Liquors may not come from the state Alcoholic Beverage Control division before the end of February, assistant borough attorney Tom Hall said at Monday night's Red Bank Council session.

And even then, store owner Sunny Sharma still has an another avenue of appeal.

The news added to the frustrations of Leighton Avenue neighbors of the store, who said they had laid off on calling the police over noise, litter and drug violations in recent months only because they thought their ordeal was at last near an end.

"The process just keeps going," said John Ross, whose home faces the West Side liquor store. "At what point do the citizens' rights to a normal life outweigh this guy's rights? We are prisoners to what this man has done," he said, referring to Sharma.

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COUNCIL WRAP

Here’s a recap of Monday night’s Red Bank Borough Council meeting. (Follow along with the agenda, if you like.)

• Mayor Pasquale Menna accepted a $162,975 dividend payment to the borough from the Central Jersey Health Insurance Fund, the shared-services operation comprised of 20 Monmouth and Ocean county towns and authorities.

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The dividend has more than doubled from the $79,000 of just two years ago, and represents improved claims experience, Menna said. It is also the equivalent of a six-percent return on the borough’s annual health insurance premium, he said.

• Menna also accepted a $5,000 donation to the borough in lieu of taxes from the nonprofit Monmouth Boat Club.

• The council gave final and unanimous approval to two ordinances.

One will result in the creation of a four-way stop at the intersection of Bridge Avenue and Chestnut Street.

The other, a planning amendment, permits the use of professional offices by physical, speech and other licensed therapists and real estate brokerages with five or fewer employees. Previously, the list of authorized uses was limited to doctors and dentists, architects, musicians and ministers, among others.

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PRESS: LIQUOR STORE SHUTDOWN UPHELD

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Sunny Sharma has lost his appeal of Red Bank’s revocation of his license to sell booze through his problem-plagued Best Liquors store on Leighton Avenue, the Asbury Park Press reports this evening.

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From the Press:

A decision released today [by Administrative Law] Judge Joseph F. Martone agreed with the borough’s arguments made at a hearing last March.

“It is a victory,” said Mayor Pasquale “Pat “” Menna. “It is not just a west side issue, it is complete town issue. Quality of life is what it’s about.”

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TYLER, 2 OTHERS, ON LIST FOR CURLEY SEAT

Tyler_johnReady to serve, he says: John Tyler at borough hall last night.

As expected, the Red Bank Republican organization has nominated John Tyler of Leighton Avenue and two others for the borough council spot vacated by the resignation of John Curley two weeks ago.

The council, led 4-1 by Democrats in the interim, now has 15 days to choose from among the three.

Tyler’s inclusion on the list, with Steve Fitzpatrick and John Giannell, is unsurprising given that he’s already on the GOP council ticket with incumbent Grace Cangemi as the party seeks to hold onto to the little it’s got at the local level. They’ll face Dems Juanita Lewis and Ed Zipprich in November.

Tyler’s on the ticket because of his impressive first-time run for council last year, when he lost a squeaker to Kathleen Horgan.

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COUNCIL RUNDOWN: BOATS, AWNINGS…

Img_8646Councilwoman Grace Cangemi says residents should have warnings before nearby hydrants are flushed, resulting in discolored water flowing through taps.

Some highlights from last night’s bimonthly meeting of the Red Bank council:

TEACHERS OF THE YEAR: In addition to primary school teacher Pat Moss, who was spotlighted here yesterday, this year’s honorees were middle school third-grade teacher Stacy Curcio; third-grade teacher Matt Strippoli of the Red Bank Charter School, and social studies teacher (and Red Bank native) Steve Johnson of Red Bank Regional.

AUDIT: Independent auditor Dave Kaplan gave his annual assessment of the borough’s finances and record-keeping, both of which he finds in good shape, though with four “relatively minor” cautions, one of which centers on the timely approval of council minutes. (Until last night, the borough clerk’s office was more than a year behind in getting the minutes of meetings together; now, the most recent minutes approved are from the July 9, 2007 session.)

Kaplan noted also that tax collections last year slipped a tad, to 97.09 percent from 97.99 percent, which he attributed to economic conditions. “People are just a little slower in paying their taxes,” he said.

BOATS AND CARS: There was a discussion of a request regarding parking on Union Street from the Monmouth Boat Club. As is somewhat common at council meetings, the agenda gave no hint of what the boat club had asked for, and nobody on the council bothered to fill the audience in, but it seemed to involve the removal of or deactivation of parking meters.

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RESIDENTS RILED OVER CRIME

By LINDA G. RASTELLI

A recent string of burglaries and shootings in Red Bank evoked mixed reactions at a West Side Community Group neighborhood watch meeting last night, with some residents praising police efforts and others saying they feel unsafe.

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“I was born and raised here. I never felt vulnerable before,” said Connie Festa Aparicio, owner of Salon 340 on Shrewsbury Avenue, who said her Catherine Street home was burglarized this week. “I don’t know how to protect my home and business.”

“My block has turned into a tenement situation,” she said. “I was gone for two hours and I was hit. It took them 10 minutes. The neighbors called (police), but he jumped off the roof (before they got there). It’s scary.”

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SHARMA CASE PUT OFF UNTIL MARCH

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Red Bank’s effort to shut down Best Liquors on Leighton Avenue won’t go before an administrative law judge until March 5, nine months after the Borough Council voted to yank the store’s license.

Borough Attorney Tom Hall got word of the scheduling from the state Alcoholic Beverage Control division by letter yesterday, he tells redbankgreen.

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YELLOW HAS SHARMA BACKERS SEEING RED

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In a move that embattled Best Liquors owner Sunny Sharma and many of his customers see as a blatant attempt to harass him out of business, the borough of Red Bank painted the curbs at Leighton Avenue and Catherine Street yellow on Tuesday.

Borough officials say the paint job underscores what was already illegal: parking too close to a corner. But Sharma says the move is a thinly disguised attempt to drive away customers by ticketing them for doing something they’ve been doing without police interference for some 80 years.

“I don’t know how they found only one corner in all of Red Bank to paint yellow,” Sharma railed from behind the counter of his store early this afternoon, as a steady stream of customers offered a chorus of supporting comments.

“There’s a school crossing just one block away. They didn’t paint that. They didn’t paint the curb in front of Yogi’s yellow. They didn’t paint the curb in front of On the Rocks yellow,” he said, citing two nearby liquor stores.

“They couldn’t find a legal way to shut us down,” he said, referring to the recent dropped-charges case alleging the sale of beer to a minor. “So now they’re going to harass the customers. Every customer is complaining, ‘what the hell is this shit?'”

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STUNNER: BORO DROPS SINGH CHARGE

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Just hours after a municipal court hearing on the latest allegations of an alleged sale of alcohol to a minor, Red Bank police are dropping the charges, redbankgreen has learned.

Borough attorney Tom Hall tells us that Javier Lopez-Ruiz, the 19-year-old Middletown man arrested for buying beer from the store on July 10, has recanted his story about not being carded by store employee Balvinder Singh.

That leaves the borough without any testimony linking Lopez-Ruiz to Singh, and thus, no case.

“We had to do the right thing,” Hall told redbankgreen early this afternoon. “I can’t prove any further violations of the law.”

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SINGH: ‘IT’S ON THE TAPE’

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By LINDA G. RASTELLI

The case against Best Liquors clerk Balvinder Singh, accused of selling beer to a 19-year-old two weeks after the Borough Council revoked the store’s alcohol license for sales to minors, was adjourned in Red Bank Municipal Court this morning.

A date for the trial, which is to be prosecuted by borough attorney Tom Hall instead of the borough prosecutor, has not yet been scheduled.

Singh, in an interview afterward, said he would plead not guilty to the charge.

“He had a Mexican ID, and it’s on the tape,” he told redbankgreen, referring to customer Javier Lopez-Ruiz, the Middletown resident who was arrested July 10 for illegally buying beer. Lopez-Ruiz implicated Singh, police contend.

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SHARMA GOES ON OFFENSE

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By LINDA G. RASTELLI

Feeling intense heat as a result of last week’s bust of an employee for the alleged sale of beer to a minor, Best Liquors owner Sunny Sharma broke his months-long silence this morning to defend the employee and his store.

“I do check IDs,” Sharma told redbankgreen. Referring to a security videotape of the July 10 incident involving 19-year-old customer Javier Lopez-Ruiz, which he did not show us, Sharma said, “You can see on the camera that he had a Mexican consul ID, issued by the Mexican embassy. He showed legal ID.”

That’s not what the police report says. Lopez-Ruiz (who police Capt. Steve McCarthy says is a Middletown resident, not a Red Bank one, as previously reported) was arrested, and Best Liquors clerk Balvinder Singh was issued a warrant for selling Lopez-Ruiz a 12-pack of Modelo Especial beer without asking for any proof of age.

The police report said Lopez-Ruiz had no ID in his wallet when he was stopped on his bicycle or on his person when he was searched later. (Download supplemental_charges_and_specifications_71207_with_exhibits_redacted.pdf)

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NEXT STOP FOR SUNNY: TRENTON

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The front in the battle between the Borough of Red Bank and Best Liquors shifts to Trenton later this month, when the state Alcoholic Beverage Control division will decide “whether there is an overriding public interest” in immediately terminating the store’s liquor license, according to a notice sent to lawyers for each side yesterday.Download 71607_abc_order_scheduling_hearing.pdf

The hearing is scheduled for 10a July 25 at the office of the ABC director. The burden of proof is on the borough, a deputy state attorney general wrote in the notice.

Meantime, store employee Balvinder Singh is due in Red Bank Municipal Court on July 19 to answer a summons for selling beer to a 19-year-old on July 10. The store was under surveillance at the time. Download supplemental_charges_and_specifications_71207_with_exhibits_redacted.pdf

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ANOTHER BUST IMPERILS BEST LEGAL CASE

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You’d think, as one wag at Borough Hall puts it, that anybody who works at Best Liquors “would be carding his own grandmother” these days, with the store’s license revocation up on appeal before the state Alcoholic Beverage Control division.

But just two weeks after the Borough Council unanimously voted to yank its license, Best is in trouble anew for exactly the kind of alleged practices that have landed it in its present legal jeopardy.

On Tuesday night, Red Bank police arrested a 19-year-old borough man “as he had just purchased alcohol” at the Leighton Avenue establishment, according to a statement issued by Capt. Stephen McCarthy. Police also cited store employee Balvinder Singh for making the sale. Both men are due in municipal court July 19.

The episode has prompted borough officials to move for an immediate end to liquor sales at the store.

“Simply put, this licensee cannot be trusted to run its business in accordance with the law,” borough attorney Tom Hall said in legal papers filed with the ABC yesterday.

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AND NOW, THE BEST APPEALS

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By LINDA G. RASTELLI

In what could be the start of a long process, Best Liquors’ owner Sunny Sharma has begun appealing his case to the state’s Alcoholic Beverage Control division in an effort to block the borough of Red Bank from permanently yanking his liquor license.

Last night, in a session that took less than 10 minutes, the council unanimously passed two resolutions: one to revoke the store’s retail distribution license, and the second, to deny renewal when its two-year term ends at midnight tomorrow.

Last week, the council found Sharma guilty of seven charges, five of which alleged sales to underaged persons.

Those sales were the tipping point that prompted Councilwoman Grace Cangemi to be part of the unanimous revocation vote, she said last night.

“It was too many sales to minors,” she said.

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SUNNY’S DONE; COUNCIL PULLS LICENSE

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By LINDA G. RASTELLI

In a sweeping show of bipartisanship, the Red Bank Borough Council this evening voted not to renew the alcohol distribution license of Best Liquors, the packaged goods store on Leighton Avenue that last year became a hothouse of illegal activity and drew the enduring wrath of its neighbors.

The governing body voted 5-0 against the store on each of six charges that formed the basis of the license hearing. Councilman RJ Bifani, who had an unspecified potential conflict of interest, did not attend hearings in the matter.

Both store owner Sunny Sharma and his antagonists — a group of homeowners living near the intersection of Leighton Ave. and Catherine Street — were surprisingly subdued as the outcome of the case became clear.

The decision not to renew the license, which under normal circumstances would expire June 30, is the first step in what could prove to be a prolonged battle in the courts. Next, the council will draft an resolution to introduce Monday night, at its next regular meeting, calling for the permanent revocation of the store’s liquor license.

A special meeting to vote on the resolution was scheduled for 5p next Thursday. If the measure passes, it would become effective at 11:59p that night.

Store owner Sunny Sharma, however, is expected to appeal to the state Alcoholic Beverage Commission. According to his lawyer, Samuel ‘Skip’ Reale Jr., a former deputy state attorney general, the store will be permitted to continue selling alcohol during the pendency of the appeal.

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LAWYER: STORE FACES ‘DEATH PENALTY’

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By LINDA G. RASTELLI

Red Bank’s legal offensive against the controversial Best Liquors store on Leighton Avenue is the economic equivalent of a ‘death penalty’ case, its lawyer argued Thursday night at the conclusion of a three-hour hearing.

The session wrapped up at about 10p without a decision by the Borough Council, which is sitting in judgment. The council instead opted to adjourn until next Thursday at 4p, when it is expected to rule on whether the store’s record of illicit booze and cigarette sales to minors merits action. Download best_liquors_charges_and_specifications.pdf

If so, the penalties, if any, could be as severe as a revocation of the store’s license to sell liquor, Mayor Pasquale Menna said earlier this week.

That possible fate is not lost on either Sunny Sharma, who owns the store, or his lawyer, Samuel ‘Skip’ Reale Jr., who ripped the case made against the store by Borough Attorney Tom Hall.

Reale said Hall was relying on “second- and third-hand hearsay” in an effort to shut the store down.

“Hall is basically asking for the death penalty,” Reale said in a summation to the council. “Is the evidence you’ve heard the type of evidence you’d want somebody to use in determing whether your business should continue or not?”

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AFTER FOUR HOURS, SHARMA’S BACK ON ICE

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By Linda G. Rastelli
In a hearing characterized by polite sparring between lawyers, the Red Bank borough council sat through nearly four hours of testimony in the case against Sunny Sharma and Best Liquors without a decision Tuesday night.

No date was set for a resumption of the hearing, in which the council is sitting in judgment. Mayor Pasquale Menna said he hoped the next installment could be scheduled within 30 days.

Testimony was taken from four witnesses for the borough: a 20-year old Middletown woman who was arrested for illegally buying beer from Best Liquors last year and three police officers involved in arrests or investigations centering on the store at Leighton Avenue and Catherine Street.

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ANOTHER TRY AT TRIAL OF THE CENTURY

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After six months of delays, the Borough of Red Bank’s administrative law case against Best Liquors will finally happen next Tuesday.

That’s the plan, at least.

At stake for Best Liquors owner Sunny Sharma is his ability to sell beer, wine and liquor at the corner of Leighton Avenue and Catherine Street.

For his residential neighbors, what’s at stake is their ability to get a good night’s sleep and to wake up knowing that tiny airline-style liquor bottles haven’t rained down on their lawns and sidewalks.

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LIQUOR LICENSE HEARING POSTPONED

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A long-anticipated hearing on the future of the Best Liquors alcohol license was postponed yesterday before it began.

Two members of the Red Bank Borough Council— John Curley and Michael DuPont— were out sick, and a third, RJ Bifani, recused himself because of a business relationship he had with the store’s owner, Sunny Sharma, according to Mayor Pasquale Menna.

No date for a resumption of the case has yet been determined.

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THE CODE OF SEATING ARRANGEMENTS

A presentation on code enforcement matters drew a pretty sparse and rather muted crowd Wednesday night.

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But redbankgreen was distracted, we admit, by who showed up and sat together at the table nearest Borough Administrator Stanley Sickels as he spoke to 30 or so residents in the River Street Commons auditorium.

Sunny Sharma (in hat), owner of Best Liquors on Leighton Avenue, sat opposite John Ross (in green t-shirt) and John Tyler (in orange shirt). Tyler and Ross are Leighton Avenue homeowners who have been demanding that the borough put Sharma out of business over noise, litter and other violations.

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BEST NIGHT’S SLEEP AFTER SHUTDOWN

“Blissfully quiet,” says one resident.

“It’s been so peaceful,” says another.

Those were two assessments of life at the corner of Leighton Avenue and Catherine Street yesterday, 24 hours after Red Bank officials shut down the controversial Best Liquors store for fire code violations.

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And yet, there was a lingering concern among residents that the recently elevated attention being paid by local officials to the store might vaporize after next Tueday’s election, and that proprietor Sunny Sharma might soon be back in business, attracting his usual noisy and messy clientele.

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