BELMAR, NJ — New plans for a four-story apartment building on the former Bank of America site were unveiled last night before the Belmar Council, drawing a chorus of criticism from residents living in the adjacent Ninth Avenue neighborhood.

As a result, the borough council held off a decision to approve standards for the new redevelopment area in which the one-half-acre property sits. Its unanimous vote to table the rezoning ordinance comes two weeks after the planning board voted 5-4 not to recommend the plan to the council, maintaining it was not consistent with the borough’s land-use master plan, due to concerns about parking and the size and scope of projects that would be permitted under its standards.

READ MORE: Belmar Planning Board Votes Down Redevelopment Plan for Former Bank of America Property

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While borough planning officials have been working with representatives of property owner Sachem Pond, LLC, on establishing a conceptual plan before a site plan application is submitted, it remains unclear what the next step will be — in light of the council’s inaction on the measure. Voting to place the ordinance on hold were Mayor Mark Walsifer, Council President Thomas Brennan, Councilman James McCracken and Councilman Thomas Carvelli. Councilwoman Patricia Wann was not present.

Nearby residents have been opposed to the new zoning regulations, which would allow for four-story buildings up to 46 feet with a lower-floor parking level and rear-yard setbacks of at least 30 feet. However, the property currently is situated in the commercial business district (CBD) that is less restrictive, permitting buildings up to 45 feet, rear-yard setbacks of only 10 feet and no standards for building design.

During the December 3 public hearing, Mayor Walsifer stressed that if the redevelopment plan to allow for the site plan application is not approved, the developer could submit a plan under the current CBD zoning regulations, paving the way for a larger structure that comes closer to the adjacent property lines.

But many opponents to the plan said they wanted the governing body to “start over”— possibly a re-examination of its master plan — to ensure that structures in the downtown area adjacent to residential areas are not too big in size and scope, and they fit into the neighborhood’s character.

Before the council voted on December 3 to table the redevelopment plan ordinance, John Taikina, the South Brunswick planner representing the developer, outlined a specific plan for the site that features a 30-unit apartment building to be constructed at the corner of Main Street and Ninth Avenue. It would consist of three top floors of one- and two-bedroom apartments — 15 of each — and a lower floor of office space and an interior parking level. There would also be a total of 45 interior and exterior parking spaces.

Unlike the initial plan for the site, which was unveiled in April 2018 and called for a rehabilitation of the existing bank building and construction of a separate apartment building, the new plan calls for one new building that would be placed closer to Main Street, allowing for a 40-foot setback from the adjacent residential property on Ninth Avenue —  10 feet more than the minimum requirement in the redevelopment plan.. Outside parking spots would be designation along the property line.

“This is a Main Street project, not a Ninth Avenue project,” Taikina said. “It would be a great addition to Main Street’s renaissance.”

But about a dozen residents who spoke during the public hearing on the ordinance were not convinced, including Brett Lomas, whose three-story home on Ninth Avenue abuts the site.

“I would take issue that it’s a Main Street building. Eighty-three percent of the frontage is on Ninth Avenue,” he said. “It does not preserve the character of the existing neighborhood of Ninth. Existing character is two and one-half stories.”

However, Walsifer countered that borough planning officials have been with working the developer to ensure the building is not at the 10-foot property line setback — as current zoning permits. “I gave marching orders to our planners there’s no way this will be built 10 feet from your property line,” he said. “This has to be a Main Street project … that was the direction I gave to our planners to work with their planners — to reduce the size of the building and take it away from your property line so it fits closer to the Main Street area.”

While Lomas thanked the mayor for negotiating on his behalf, he did not back down from pushing for a building lower than four stories and farther than 40 feet from his property line. “I’ve got two kids. Their bedrooms are on that side of the house. Right now, they see sunsets out their windows,” he said, adding that the new Main Street building at Fifth Avenue has a 100-foot setback. “If this passes, instead of sunsets there will be apartments staring into my kids’ windows.”

Saying that the plan “is not far off from being reasonable,” Lomas called on the council to redraft the redevelopment plan. “This isn’t the ideal plan; it doesn’t have to be four stories and can have a larger setback,” he said. “You can make it say what you want it to. You don’t have to listen to just the developer. You can listen to us, too.”

When asked during the public session whether he would consider revising the latest plan, Alec Taylor, a principal in Sachem Pond, said he thought his latest proposal under the proposed more-restrictive redevelopment plan provided him with the opportunity to “come up with something better for all concerned.”

From a fiscal perspective, Taylor said the plan is inferior to what he could have proposed under current CBD zoning requirements. If any plan under CBD or the more-restrictive redevelopment requirements is not acceptable, “I’m afraid the chances we’re going to find something we agree upon as acceptable are not very high,” he said. “I live in this town and I care for this town. I thought I was doing the right thing with this project by engaging in discussion in something more restrictive than (current zoning in the) CBD.”

The last re-examination of the borough's master plan was undertaken in 2016. While the state mandates that municipalities review their master plans and land use regulations every 10 years, municipalities can conduct a re-examination whenever it is warranted to "respond to changing conditions and reflect the best current thinking on land use issues," according to Belmar's master plan.

However, under the state Municipal Land Use Law, zoning changes resulting from a master plan review would not be applied to site plan applications that have already been filed, according to borough attorney Jerry Daisti.

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