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Paul Goldfinger, Editor @Blogfinger.

The HPC Chairperson has notified Blogfinger that “any official statements representing the opinions of the entire HPC Board are not possible” per advice of their lawyer.

Debby Osepchuk, the Chairperson at the HPC, tells Blogfinger in an email that “a review of the Ordinance which controls the HPC duties and powers does not expressly permit the HPC to engage in a letter writing campaign to media outlets.”    In other words, this important institution of historic preservation in Ocean Grove has been muzzled.

For those who care what the HPC thinks, don’t expect any more statements in the media.

Unfortunately, this notice represents another example of the “silent treatment” which we have documented as being pervasive in Ocean Grove and which is part of the lack of transparency that prevents the public from learning the truth.

I imagine that the HPC will have to formally tell the Township how it feels about the new guidelines, and if they do issue something in writing, that statement should be accessible via the Freedom of Information Act or perhaps posted on the Township website.

Those of you who want to know more should contact the HPC directly or go to their meetings.  Maybe they would confide to individual citizens  (ie their neighbors.)     You also should be able to read the properly annotated version of the new guidelines when the Township posts that on their website, if they do.

Whether the guidelines will be changed to suit the HPC and those who support preservation in the Grove remains to be seen. The Township is in charge, and that is a disturbing concept given their track record of obscuring the truth.

 

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80 Main. Hardly working?

By Charles Layton

You may have seen the workmen’s scaffold on the side of 80 Main Avenue and wondered whether the long-promised rehab of that building is finally happening.

The answer is: not yet.

However, in Municipal Court on Thursday the absentee owners’ attorney, William Gannon, promised once again that this derelict building is about to be fixed up for sale.

The court fined the owners $250 and gave them another 90 days to get the work done. This was the third time in less than a year that the court has assessed such a fine and accepted such a promise.

The Township has been after the owners, Mark and Hal Ornstein of Howell, NJ, for a couple of years now for having allowed their property to fall into such an extreme state of disrepair.

For a time, the owners had sought to demolish the building, but the Historic Preservation Commission denied permission for that on grounds that the building is not beyond repair and that it is on the list of Ocean Grove’s “key structures,” meaning it is of special historical and architectural importance.

Gannon stated in court on Thursday that he has now found an architect for a total rehab job and that he will submit plans to the HPC within a week.

Some Township officials remain skeptical that the work will be completed within the 90-day schedule required by the court. They think it very likely that at least one more trip to court may be necessary before the job finally gets done.

“It is vital to our historic district that 80 Main be repaired and maintained,” Committeewoman Mary Beth Jahn told us on Friday. “Each key structure that is murdered in Ocean Grove, regardless of intention, represents a step closer to the loss of the Grove’s historic status.”

A “for sale” sign is on the front porch of the building. Century 21 says the asking price is $680,000 for the building, including the rehab work that is to come.

Bill Gannon could not be reached for comment on this story.

Photos by Charles Layton

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By Charles Layton

In response to criticism from neighbors and a stop-work order from the Township, the builders of the new home at 65 Abbott Avenue have agreed to lower the height of the porch and foundation to match the approved specifications.

A letter to that effect, from the builder to Township officials, was made public at Tuesday night’s meeting of the Historic Preservation Commission.

Obviously, reducing the height of the foundation after the house is essentially built will be a major undertaking. Susan Solebello of Sawbucks Contracting said Wednesday she was not yet prepared to say just how this will be done. It would appear to require jacking up the entire house.

Construction has been stopped at 65 Abbott Avenue. Photo by Charles Layton

Only after the house had been completely framed, roofed and sheathed was it discovered that the foundation had been built higher than what the original plans and zoning permit called for. Members of the HPC were particularly concerned that the foundation had been “altered drastically,” as HPC chairwoman Deborah Osepchuk put it. The problem was originally brought to the Township’s attention by a neighbor who was distressed at the overall size of the new home, which is out of proportion to other homes on the block.

There is some question as to how much the foundation height exceeds what the HPC had approved last summer. HPC members thought it exceeded the approved height by three feet. Solebello said Wednesday the difference was “less than two feet.”

The property was purchased last year by a Freehold family. A much smaller house on the site was demolished to make way for a 2 ½ story single-family home with a total floor area of 2,672 square feet, including a habitable attic. The plans, by local architect Mark Pavliv, also include a multi-purpose gym and a home theater in the basement.

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By Charles Layton

Neptune Township has formally ordered all work stopped on the new house under construction at 65 Abbott Avenue.

Officials say what is being built there does not comply with what the Historic Preservation Commission approved last August. Therefore, even though the home has already been framed, roofed and sheathed, the Neptune Construction Department issued a stop-work order on Tuesday.

Deborah Osepchuk, the HPC’s chairwoman, told me that the builder now needs to come back to the commission with a new proposal. “The height of the foundation has been raised putting the front porch at over 5 feet from grade,” she said. “This also raises the overall height of the house making it appear larger and more massive.”

The new house replaces a much smaller structure. Photo by Charles Layton

Because this house has become a center of some controversy on the street, I sought clarification Wednesday from George Waterman, the Township’s zoning officer, and Leanne Hoffman, director of engineering and planning. They told me that the mean roof height of the house remains several feet below the 35-foot zoning limit. Once the contractor files additional paperwork, they said, they expect it to pass muster with the zoning office.

The HPC is a different story, however, because it is concerned with the overall look of the building’s exterior, i.e., its appropriateness within the Historic District of Ocean Grove. Both the HPC and zoning consider it to be a problem whenever someone departs from the terms of building permits and zoning and HPC approvals.

Representatives of the HPC and the builder, Sawbucks Contracting of Ocean Grove, met on Tuesday to try to untangle the mess. Michael Solebello of Sawbucks told me on Wednesday that things remain “in fact finding mode” and that he isn’t sure what will happen next. “There’s a lot of question about what the problem actually is.”

He also said, “One way or other we’ll make everybody happy.”

The Township’s stop-work order did not spell out the specific nature of the problem; it simply said that the house “has not been constructed according to approvals.”

 The issue first came to the Township’s attention due to a complaint from a neighbor who is distressed about the size of the new building.

The property was purchased last year by a Freehold family. A much smaller house on the site was demolished to make way for a 2 ½ story single-family home with a total floor area of 2,672 square feet, including a habitable attic. The plans also call for a multi-purpose gym and home theater area in the basement.

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Aerial view showing "flared setbacks," which Ocean Grove groups hope to protect in the new Master Plan. Photo by Tracey James, Blogfinger photographer

By Charles Layton

This Wednesday’s Planning Board meeting will mark the first time Ocean Grove’s various civic groups have had a chance to air their concerns about the Board’s proposed new Master Plan.

Those concerns – by the Home Owners Association, the Historical Society of Ocean Grove and the Historic Preservation Commission – mainly have to do with protecting Ocean Grove’s unique historic character from developers or others who would undermine it.

Leaders of those three organizations showed up at the Planning Board’s September 14 meeting hoping to make themselves heard. To their disappointment, no one in the audience was allowed to speak. Although all three organizations have written letters to the Planning Board detailing their concerns, the Planning Board has not responded to those letters. And in recent weeks, when Blogfinger offered the Planning Board a chance to address these groups’ concerns on our website, the offer was declined.

It is fair to say that a growing number of people believe the Neptune Planning Board has distanced itself from the public – on issues of heartfelt concern to Ocean Grovers.

Here are a few of the issues raised by the Ocean Grove organizations:

All three groups are troubled by the scores of vague passages throughout the new Master Plan draft calling for regulations to be “reviewed” or “redrafted” or “reconstituted” or “updated” without further explanation. The Historical Society, in its letter to the Planning Board, speaks of these passages as “weakly defined language that urges sweeping changes to the present regulations.” The Home Owners, in a letter approved by members at its October meeting, describes “a lack of clarity in important passages regarding zoning regulations, density limits, the flared setback and other crucial matters. Our fear is that [the language in these passages] would give present and future administrations too much discretion making changes to the zoning regulations. We fear that this draft opens the door to a weakening of existing protections.”

The Home Owners Association strongly opposes a proposal in the draft to create a new Land Use Advisory Committee within the Township government. “Such a body,” the Home Owners letter says, “would usurp the authority of the existing citizen boards [meaning the Zoning Board and Planning Board], replacing their judgments with the judgments of various executives of the Township. This would potentially allow for more decisions to be made outside the public’s view, and would be an invitation to more political influence and insider dealing.”

Gail Shaffer, the Historical Society’s president, said in an interview, “We are very concerned that they would be making a board of officials who can make decisions without any input from the public, and we are worried about the decisions that they might make for Ocean Grove, and its history and its traditions.”

The HPC has similar concerns. The Planning Board’s document says that the proposed new committee would only be empowered to approve “minor changes that have been found to be di-minimus” [sic]. Critics wonder why a new layer of governmental authority is needed for matters that are de minimis (that is, of negligible importance). They also question who, within the recesses of the Township government, would decide what is or isn’t de minimis. “A small change to zoning can be a humongous change to historic preservation,” said Deborah Osepchuk, who chairs the HPC.

The Home Owners Association is also urging that existing zoning limits be maintained on building heights and number of stories. “We, like many other Ocean Grovers, are concerned about recent trends toward greater height and greater density,” the group wrote in its letter.

The HPC and the Historical Society have a range of concerns about a part of the new Master Plan draft called the Historic Preservation Element, which is especially important to Ocean Grove. Both organizations think the new draft should do a better job of explaining why Ocean Grove was named as a State and National Historic District, as an example of a 19th century planned urban community. The previous Master Plan went into eloquent detail about those characteristics that make Ocean Grove historically unique and in need of protection. Omitting or abbreviating that information, says Osepchuk, weakens Ocean Grove’s ability to protect those cherished characteristics. It might also affect the town’s ability to get grant money for certain restoration projects.

As an example, the new Master Plan draft fails to explain the importance of the flared setback. (In fact, it hardly mentions it except in the “Land Use Element,” where it recommends allowing porches to encroach into the flare in certain cases.)

The previous Master Plan contained a list of some of Ocean Grove’s so-called “key structures,” i.e., structures most in need of preservation due to their exceptional importance architecturally and historically. The Planning Board’s rewrite omits that list. Having the list in the Master Plan, according to the HPC, bolsters the validity of Ocean Grove’s historic status. The HPC often refers to that list of structures in its deliberations and decisions.

The present dispute over the Master Plan is unusual in that all three of these local organizations have voiced such strong objections almost in concert. The Historical Society, in particular, has a long history of avoiding political involvement. When I asked Gail Shaffer, the Society’s president, whether the Society had taken such an activist stand before on a public issue, she said, “Never. As far as I know we have never done it, not in recent history, certainly.” When I asked why they were doing it now, she said, “When you read the new Master Plan, Ocean Grove is almost left out.”

The Planning Board meeting is scheduled for Wednesday, November 9, at 7 p.m. in the Township Committee Meeting Room, 2nd floor of the Municipal Building. Between now and then, here’s some background:

  • To read the Home Owners Association’s letter to the Planning Board, go here.
  • To read the Historical Society of Ocean Grove’s letter to the Planning Board, go here.
  • To read the Planning Board’s proposed new Master Plan on the Neptune Township website, go here. Then scroll down to “Draft Elements of the Master Plan.” The elements of most concern to Ocean Grovers are those on “land use” and “historic preservation.” You can click on each of those separately.

Editor’ note: Because there’s more than one side to every story, our offer remains open to anyone on the Planning Board who wants to address any of the above concerns, either before or after Wednesday night’s meeting.

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By Charles Layton

The Historic Preservation Commission seems to have persuaded the Neptune Planning Board to include stronger protections for Ocean Grove in its rewrite of the Master Plan.

But the Ocean Grove Home Owners Association remains at odds with the Planning Board over its own issues, and it appears that a fight between the two groups may be in the offing.

The newly-included language proposed by the HPC stresses the importance of Ocean Grove’s architectural heritage, its emphasis on single-family homes, and such defining characteristics of the town plan as the flared setback on avenues near the ocean.

The Planning Board has been working for months on a total rewrite of the Master Plan, a document that lays out basic goals and guidelines for land use and zoning.

Last week, the HPC passed a resolution expressing concern that the board’s proposed rewrite did not do enough to protect the Grove’s historic heritage. But at a public meeting on Wednesday night, the board revealed that it had inserted into its draft much of the language suggested by the HPC.

Also on Wednesday, the Historical Society of Ocean Grove weighed in for the first time with a letter to the Planning Board, in which it agreed with the issues raised by the HPC and also with a broader range of concerns raised by the Home Owners Association.

While acceding to most of what the HPC had asked for, the Planning Board made no concessions to the Home Owners. Members of the Home Owners board who were present at the meeting came away unhappy with that, and also with the Planning Board’s refusal to allow comment from members of the public.

“This is nonsense,” Home Owners trustee Fran Paladino told me after it was made clear that no one would be allowed to voice concerns or raise questions. The three-hour meeting was taken up by a lengthy report to the Planning Board by its consultant Jennifer Beahm, covering the details of the entire 207-page draft of the proposed new Master Plan.

In a letter delivered on Friday, a committee of the Home Owners had expressed fears that this new plan, as written, would be bad for Ocean Grove. (For full details, read the Home Owners letter here.)

There was no indication on Wednesday night that the Planning Board was in any mood to accommodate the Home Owners’ concerns. Neither did the Home Owners trustees show any willingness to back off, and it seems likely that the issue will be raised at the group’s next membership meeting, which is on September 24.

One of the Home Owners’ chief concerns is a suggestion in the Planning Board’s draft that the Township create a new Land Use Advisory Committee to make decisions as to whether “minor changes that have been found to be di-minimus [sic] in nature can be approved administratively” rather than going to the Zoning Board of Adjustment. The Home Owners committee’s letter said it feared this new bureaucratic layer of authority would “usurp the authority of the existing citizens boards, replacing their judgments with the judgments of various executives of the Township. This would potentially allow for more decisions to be made outside the public’s view, and would be an invitation to more political influence and insider dealing.”

Support for the Home Owners position on this and some other issues appeared to be growing in certain quarters. In its Wednesday letter, the Historical Society made a point of concurring with issues raised by the Home Owners. Gail Shaffer, president of the Historical Society, told me she was especially concerned about the issue of the proposed new advisory committee. Deborah Osepchuk, chairwoman of the HPC, told me she too was concerned about that issue, although she stressed that she was speaking only for herself, not for the HPC, on that matter.

Another major concern of the Home Owners committee is the proposal’s frequent recommendations that various rules on zoning, density limits, the flared setback and other issues important to Ocean Grove be “reviewed,” “redrafted” or “evaluated.” So much “broad language in the Master Plan, urging such sweeping changes, would give present and future administrations too much discretion to make whatever changes they please,” the Home Owners letter said.

The Historical Society’s letter specifically supported the Home Owners on this issue. It spoke of “weakly defined language that urges sweeping changes to the present regulations.”

Osepchuk said she was pleased that the Planning Board had accepted the HPC’s suggestion to put protective language from the old Master Plan into the draft of the new one. “There are marked improvements from what was originally written,” she said, but added that “there is still room for some tweaking.”

One important historical passage from the old Master Plan, which Osepchuk’s commission succeeded in having transplanted into the new one, described Ocean Grove’s physical decline in the 1990s as hotels and rooming houses for summer lodgers gave way to multi-family residences and boarding houses for the indigent. Legal changes since then, prohibiting similar conversions to multi-family residential use, “have limited additional deterioration and facilitated a renaissance of investment in single-family housing, bed and breakfasts and historic hotels,” the restored language says. It continues: “These types of uses are more appropriate to the scale and character of the [historic] district and provide appropriate development that preserves the character of Ocean Grove.” The newly included language also promises “a strong commitment to the protection and preservation of Ocean Grove’s unique town plan, particularly its flared setback, and all properties designated as having architectural and historic significance.”

The HPC considered that language important to protecting Ocean Grove’s status as a National Historic District.

Planning Board Chairman Joseph Shafto said the public would not have a chance to speak before the board until it meets on November 9 for what could be its final consideration of the Master Plan. Between now and November 9, however, anyone who wishes to submit a letter for the board’s consideration may do so, Shafto said.

After the plan is approved, in whatever form, by the Planning Board, the Board and its attorneys would then rewrite the local land use ordinance based on what’s in the new Master Plan. The new ordinance would then be passed into law by the Township Committee.

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The Historic Preservation Commission Tuesday gave Heinz Weck approval to build a new home in place of one that was lost in the March 11 fire. That makes it likely that Weck will be the first of the fire victims to rebuild.

Weck’s dwelling, at 28 Atlantic Avenue, was one of seven homes destroyed on March 11 along with the old Surf Avenue Hotel.

Weck and his architect, Joseph L. Walker III, presented plans for a new home of two and one-half stories, occupying approximately the same amount of space as the one that burned. “I told Mr. Walker to design a home that would be to the liking of the [HPC] board,” Weck said, “and the interior to my liking. My favorite color is baby blue, but if you like yellow I’ll paint it yellow.”

HPC chairwoman Deborah Osepchuk told him blue would be fine. The commission did have problems with the design of the front door and porch, however. After Walker agreed to make changes and resubmit those for Osepchuk’s approval, the commission gave its assent to the project on that basis.

Walker said he wasn’t sure when construction would begin.

— CL

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