BELMAR, NJ — After a nearly four-year delay mired in controversy and legal action, the Belmar Planning Board has cleared the way for construction of a mixed-use project on the banks of the Shark River.
With relatively little dissent, the board approved on December 18 a site plan submitted by developer Loko Co., LLC, to construct Eastport, a project at 710 River Avenue that will consist of two buildings with 10 residential condominiums and first-floor commercial space, which would include a restaurant and bar.
In July, Loko reached a settlement agreement with the borough to construct the second “permanent” phase of the project after years of delays stalled its first controversial phase approved in February 2014 — construction of an outdoor bar on the site by brothers Timothy and Matthew Harmon, owners of the nearby Boathouse Bar and Grill. That matter is still the subject of a $10 million federal suit filed by the Harmons, who are seeking damages resulting from what they claim has been the borough’s deliberate attempt to prevent them from opening Salt, the outdoor bar that still sits vacant on the site.
During the two-hour hearing before the board, the only mention of that first phase was by Brett Yarusi, a partner in Loko, who said the bar “would be demolished” once the second phase of the project received the official go-ahead.
Under the approved proposal, Loko will construct two “mirror” buildings, each consisting of five, two-floor townhome-style units and ground-level commercial space to be occupied by a restaurant and bar operation.
Since the front of the building would only provide access for the building’s residential occupants, the eatery would be situated around the back of the structure — making it a destination location, according to Gregory Kapalko, another partner in Loko.
Now that the project can move forward, he said he will begin talks with prospective tenants for the proposed 7,200-square-foot restaurant space, which is divided between the two buildings.
The residential units would be individually owned, each having a separate entrance on the ground floor with its own staircase and elevator.
Construction is expected to begin this spring, Kapalko said.
In a list of concerns presented by planning board attorney Douglas Kovats, questions arose over the number of parking spaces that would be required under current zoning regulations. While the original plans indicate that 48 total spaces would be required for both residential and commercial use, a reduction in the total amount of residential square footage— from 4,640 to 4,450 in each building — brings that total down to about 42 spaces — only four more than the 38 spaces now included on the site plan.
And since the property sits across the street from the Belmar Municipal Building parking lot, “shared parking” is allowed under the borough’s redevelopment rules, according to Loko traffic engineer John Rea of McDonough and Rea Associates, Manasquan.
Seeking a clarification of the numbers, the planning board is requiring Loko to readjust its parking ratio calculations based on the actual residential square footage to determine how it will meet these requirements.
Also brought into question was the inclusion of a gazebo in the rear of the site overlooking the Shark River. Although there was little detail given on the construction of the structure, Kapalko explained its use would be determined by the operator of the restaurant, opening the possibility of it serving as an outdoor bar.
In its 8-1 vote to approve the application, several planning board members expressed concern that the proposal lacked detail in several areas, including the final parking requirement in an area plagued by a parking shortage during the summer and the use of the gazebo as an outdoor bar.
Planning board member Thomas Burke, who cast the only dissenting vote, also cited the lack of detailed floor plans for the second floor of the condominiums, where two bedrooms, two full baths and laundry facilities are planned for each.
“The probables are difficult,” he said, referring to all three issues. “We need details. The application is not complete.”
Planning board members voting to approve the application were planning board president Edward Windas, borough council president Brian Magovern, public works director Michael Campbell, Rick Meyers, Christopher Hoffman, Larry Reynolds, Thea Sheridan and Jared Cohen.
After settling its lawsuit with the borough over the stalled project in July, Loko went before the Belmar Council two months later seeking to eliminate the commercial part of the project — and instead construct six additional condominium units. But in a split decision, the governing body struck down that request, and Loko returned to its original plan.
There was some speculation at the latest hearing that if a commercial tenant is not found, Loko may ask that the all-residential proposal be reconsidered by the Belmar Council. However, since the developer’s Coastal Area Facility Review Act (CAFRA) approval only applies to the mixed-use project, it would be required to start that rigorous approval process with the state Department of Environmental Protection all over again.
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