BELMAR, NJ — A $10 million federal lawsuit has been filed against the borough by the owners of a proposed outdoor bar whose liquor license transfer was rejected.
Brothers Timothy and Matthew Harmon are seeking damages resulting from what they claim is the borough’s deliberate attempt to prevent them from opening Salt, a tiki-style bar and café at 710 River Road that continues to sit vacant on the banks of the Shark River.
In the five-count complaint, the Harmons contend that the borough and named borough officials — including Mayor Matthew Doherty, Police Chief Andrew Huisman and Belmar’s four-member council — have violated their civil rights, state and federal racketeering laws, and have inflicted emotional distress since they launched plans in April 2014 to build, open and have a liquor license transferred to Salt.
“The action is to recover damages for the violation of (the Harmons’) rights to control and operate their businesses and to own, operate and control and transfer them free from the tortious, fraudulent and extortionate conduct of Belmar politicians, officials, employees and appointees,” according to the complaint, filed this week in U.S. District Court, District of New Jersey, by Roger McLaughlin, the Wall attorney representing the Harmons.
Mayor Doherty called the lawsuit frivolous, baseless and lacking merit, and an attack on the borough’s Police Department. “I am particularly disturbed by the way Tim Harmon and Matt Harmon viciously attack the Belmar Police Department with false allegations,” he said in a statement. “Their police bashing is clearly a way to undermine our Police Department. We have an outstanding department that serves and protects our residents and deserves the support of our community.
“The way (the Harmons) defame our police is over the line, and based on their own lawsuit, it is all because they allege the town caused them emotional distress and hurt their feelings,” he continued. “We will aggressively defend our police against (these) attacks.”
According to the complaint, the Harmons were met with myriad setbacks intentionally placed in their way by the borough to prevent them from opening Salt, culminating with the denial of the liquor license transfer in June 2016. These roadblocks have included a 14-month Police Department investigation of a routine liquor license transfer, delays in the issuance of permits, and stop-work orders implemented during the construction process for alleged code violations, the lawsuit contends.
In addition, the complaint claims that because a similar outdoor establishment located minutes away from Salt — 9th Avenue Pier at the Belmar Marina, which is owned by the borough and leased to Chefs International — the borough “did not want another outdoor café/bar to open on the waterfront in Belmar.”
The lawsuit also alleges that the borough has interfered with the operation of Boathouse Bar and Grill on Main Street, also owned by the Harmons for more than 20 years, in retaliation for their efforts to open Salt and subsequent legal action.
In addition to Doherty and Huisman, also named in the lawsuit are council members Jennifer Nicolay, Thomas Brennan and Brian Magovern, former councilwoman Janis Keown-Blackburn, Borough Administrator Colleen Connolly, Belmar Police Captains Thomas Cox and Tina Scott, Borough Construction Officer Ted Bianchi and Borough Code Enforcement Officer Robert Poff. Loko, LLC, which owns the River Road site and filed its own lawsuit in the matter in November 2016, is also named in the latest complaint because it holds the contract and lease for the property with the Harmons.
The never-used establishment is situated across the street the Harmons’ former 507 Main restaurant, which was closed in 2015 so that its liquor license could be transferred to Salt. But those plans were thwarted last June 8 when the Borough Council voted 2-1 to reject the transfer. Voicing concerns over the location of the outdoor bar, councilwomen Keown-Blackburn and Nicolay voted against the measure, while councilman McGovern voted for the transfer. Councilman Brennan, a musician who plays at many bars requiring borough approval of their liquor licenses, recused himself from voting on renewals and transfers on that night, including the 507 Main-to-Salt transfer. Mayor Doherty was absent from the meeting.
Following that vote, the Harmons filed an appeal last June with the state’s Division of Alcoholic Beverage Control seeking a reversal of the liquor license denial — a case that is still pending, according to McLaughlin.
Additionally, Loko, owned by developer Gregory Kapalko, filed a lawsuit last November against the borough, claiming that Doherty and the borough violated a two-phase redevelopment agreement approved in 2014 for the riverfront property. Under the plan, the outdoor bar and café would be constructed and used for the first three years, making way after that for construction of a mixed use building of residential condominiums, and first-floor commercial space, which would include a restaurant and bar.
According to the latest lawsuit, the $10 million amount was set based on lost sales and revenues from the operation of Boathouse and 507 Main, loss of prospective sales from Salt, destruction of good will that the Harmons built for their Boathouse and 507 Main businesses, and legal costs.
The complaint also asks that the Harmons’ liquor license be transferred to Salt so that they can still be able to open the outdoor establishment for a three-year period.