By Neil Schulman
Long Branch — A West End attorney has filed a suit against the city for its recently passed zoning ordinance in the neighborhood, calling the plan “arbitrary and capricious.”
This lot where the West End fire destroyed shops and apartments is among parecels under dispute.
The city is currently asking the court to dismiss the case as a frivolous suit.
Officials have also said that, despite signs up calling to expand West End Park, plans to buy the old movie theater are a non-starter for several reasons, including the expense.
Mayor Adam Schneider has also said that many of the complaints about the new zoning have been based on rumor, misinformation or misunderstanding.
Last week, Scott Kelly, an attorney with offices in West End, filed a suit against the city opposing the plan, approved by council in April.
“I think it’s going to be a disaster for the village of West End,” Kelly told The Link.
While the new ordinance, known as the West End
- While signs have sprouted up around Long Branch calling for West End Park to be expanded, city officials say they don’t have the millions of dollars, or a party interested in selling it.District Overlay zone, applies to several properties in the district, the two most contentious have been the empty lot on Brighton Ave. across the street from the West End Park, and the old movie theater, closed for about 20 years. The now empty lot had contained several businesses and apartments which burned down in a 2012 fire.The previous ordinance only allowed for commercial businesses in these sites. The new overlay would allow for different uses — a combination of business with housing overhead for the Brighton Avenue lot, and an “institutional” use on the second flood of the theater and adjacent property.
In this case, that refers to a synagogue that Chabad of the Shore wants to build. A couple of years ago, under the old zoning ordinance, the city denied a request to simply convert those buildings into a synagogue.
The new plan would allow a religious institution on the second floor if there are commercial businesses on the ground floor.
Kelly claims that in the past, the city has been unwilling to change its zoning to accommodate religious uses.
“There was a guy (Kevin Brown) who tried to open a church… and he was flatly denied,” Kelly said. “Now some other religious organization is trying to come in.
“This is not what I would consider the best use for what could be some valuable real estate,” he said.
He also worries that West End, which already has a few empty stores, does not need more business development. This plan increases the business density in an area which has not shown a need for that.
Kelly called the ordinance an example of “spot zoning.”
Kelly is not alone in his feelings. A Facebook Group called Save West End has been putting signs up around the city calling for the movie theater property to be purchased and added to the park.
Long Branch officials have strongly defended the ideas behind the zoning, and say that objectors overlook important details of the plan.
They also say the ordinance allows for greater diversity.
The city has responded to Kelly’s suit by sending him a letter calling it frivolous, and saying he has 28 days to dismiss it, or they will ask the courts to make him responsible for their legal fees to fight the case.
Since the ordinance has been passed, a few people who objected to it have spoken at most council meetings. The one this week was no exception.
Mayor Adam Schneider told a resident who had just found out about the change that the ordinance does more than permit a synagogue.
“There’s other conditions, such as parking,” he said.
The parking lot used by the theater is technically private property, though the public uses it extensively. Any development on the property must preserve or increase the number of parking spaces.
The planning board has already told owners of the Brighton Avenue lot their initial proposal would be rejected due to lack of parking spaces unless it is modified.
The ordinance also has provisions to keep institutional uses limited. Once an institutional use is put up on a second floor, no similar use is permitted within at least 1,000 feet
As for purchasing the old theater and lot, Schneider said that it’s completely unfeasible.
“The proposal’s nonsense. The city’s not interested,” he said.
While the Save West End group has claimed Monmouth County is considering helping with the purchase, Schneider said he’s talked to County officials, and they have no plans to do so either.
Part of the reason is the expense. “You’re looking at probably close to $5 million,” just to purchase the land, he said. Developing it would be even more expensive.
It would also require that the owner be interested in selling to the city.
While a couple of residents have asked if the city could use eminent domain to take the land, the mayor said the area is not in a redevelopment zone, making that legally impossible.
Schneider also said there is no clear way that purchasing potential businesses and turning them into park land “would improve the business district.”
According to the ordinance, the purpose of the changes is to “recognize the unique architectural and cultural character of the West End District as more of a village in the city of Long Branch.”
Schneider has told The Link he’s heard a lot of misinformation about what could happen there. One rumor going around, which he dismissed as “totally false,” is that West End Park would be forced to close on Saturday, the Jewish sabbath, if the synagogue was built.
Schneider said that in April, Kelly attended a meeting, and agreed with a speaker who was worried that the neighborhood would be “Manhattanized.”
“I asked them what that meant,” Adam said. “They didn’t have an answer. I don’t know what that means. Really, what does that even mean? Manhattanized?”
The ordinance affects several other properties, including allowing the closed West End School to be converted into a theater by NJ Repertory Company.
In addition to describing permitted uses, the ordinance also sets out extensive guidelines for parking, permitted types of facades, planting, requirements for sidewalks, and other details.
When the ordinance was passed, officials pointed to the fact that several parts of the neighborhood had been vacant for years and decades, and making these changes would make them more desirable to developers.
They also noted that many of the changes were designed to reflect what already existed. For example, most of the businesses have housing above them, as they are older properties and had that use grandfathered into to the zone when the rules changed.