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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

On Saturday, members of the Ocean Grove Home Owners Association endorsed a statement critical of the Neptune Planning Board’s proposed rewrite of the Township Master Plan. The statement raises concerns that the proposed rewrite could lead to an erosion of Ocean Grove’s unique historic character.

A special committee of the Home Owners, co-chaired by Joan Venezia and Francis Paladino, had already criticized the Planning Board’s rewrite on those grounds. Its criticisms appeared in a September 9 letter from that committee to the Planning Board.

Saturday’s action by the Home Owners membership simply affirmed the contents of that letter.

One concern is that the draft rewrite contains “a lack of clarity” on issues of central importance to Ocean Grove, including those pertaining to zoning, density limits and flared setbacks. The rewrite often simply recommends that a certain provision of the current laws and rules should be “reviewed,” “evaluated,” “redrafted,” “reconstituted” or “updated” without saying who would make those changes, in what manner, or why.

“Our fear,” the letter says, “is that 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 might please.”

The letter also expresses fears that a new Township Land Use Advisory Committee, proposed as part of the new Master Plan, 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.”

OGHOA trustee Joan Venezia briefing the members. Photo by Mary Walton

The Planning Board has been working for many months on a total rewrite of the Master Plan, a document that lays out basic goals and guidelines for land use and zoning throughout the Township. The Master Plan contains special provisions that apply solely to Ocean Grove, because it is designated as a National Historic District.

In recent weeks Venezia and others on the Home Owners board have been urging the organization’s members to study the issue. At the beginning of Saturday’s meeting she distributed more written material to members. Then she delivered a briefing during the business portion of the meeting, prior to the vote.

One member of the audience asked Venezia why she thought the Township might be trying to “water down” Ocean Grove’s protections in the Master Plan. “There is no motive that we can detect,” Venezia said. (Venezia confirmed to me later that, so far as she knows, no one from the Planning Board has ever responded to the concerns expressed in her committee’s September 9 letter, not even to acknowledge having received the letter. She seemed puzzled by the Planning Board’s silence to the Home Owners’ concerns.)

Joe Krimko, a Home Owners member but also a member of the Planning Board, did attempt to speak in defense of the Planning Board’s rewrite at Saturday’s meeting. He said the proposed new language calling for redrafting and reviewing various provisions would not allow anyone to skirt the protections in current law. Any change would require an amendment to the Township’s land use ordinance, he said, and “any change to the ordinance has to have public input.”

Before Krimko could say more, the presiding officer, Home Owners President Denis McCarthy, cut him off, saying “Explanation is not needed now.” And with that, the question was called to a voice vote.

No dissenting votes were heard, although Krimko voted “abstain.”

Venezia and McCarthy reminded the members that the Planning Board is to meet on the evening of November 9 to review its rewrite draft once more. At that meeting, it is expected that the public will be allowed to speak. At the Planning Board’s most recent meeting on the Master Plan, on September 14, no public comment was allowed.

To read the entire text of the letter approved on Saturday, go here.

For more background on the issue, go here.

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Saturday’s Home Owners meeting also included a set of two forums featuring candidates for office. The first forum (pictured below) consisted of candidates for state General Assembly and state Senate. The second consisted of candidates for county freeholder and surrogate. It would be impossible, in this space, to even summarize the discussions except to say that they included the issues of property taxes, state deficits, pension and benefits reform and unemployment.

Of particular interest to many in the audience was the statement by incumbent state Sen. Jennifer Beck that, whereas she previously voted against gay marriage, she has now changed her mind and is in favor of it. — CL

Politicos on parade. From left: senate candidate Ray Santiago (D), assembly candidate Kathy Horgan (D), assembly candidate Vin Gopal (D), assembly candidate Dan Jacobson (I), incumbent Sen. Jennifer Beck (R), incumbent Assemblywoman Mary Pat Angelini (R) and incumbent Assemblywoman Caroline Casagrande (R). Photo by Mary Walton

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William Doolittle (right) addressing the Home Owners Association. Committeeman Randy Bishop looks on. Photo by Mary Walton

By Charles Layton

Saturday, February 26 — Today’s meeting of the Ocean Grove Home Owners Association featured a wide-ranging discussion of derelict buildings — how the Township addresses the problem, why it takes so long to get results, and how citizens can help.

The guest speaker, William Doolittle, said when he became Neptune’s director of Code and Construction two years ago, he compiled a list of more than 40 deteriorating structures needing immediate attention. (Around City Hall, it’s known as “the ugly list.”)

“We’ve gotten rid of about half of those structures,” he said, either by demolishing them or forcing the owners to make repairs. The only such building to be demolished in Ocean Grove, he said, was the Sampler Inn in 2009.

Because of budget cuts, Doolittle’s staff of six building inspectors was reduced to three last year, and the number of secretaries in Code Enforcement was cut from two to one. Doolittle told me before the meeting that he didn’t expect these staff cuts to reduce the number of inspections his department conducts for code violations. However, Doolittle and Committeeman Randy Bishop, today’s other guest speaker, said the loss of staff may make Neptune more dependent on citizens’ tips.

“We count on you guys greatly for your eyes and your ears, to let us know what’s going on out there,” Doolittle told the group. When one member of the audience said it is sometimes difficult for citizens to know what constitutes a code violation, Bishop said, “If it looks bad enough to you, report a violation.”

Doolittle said it’s helpful if the person reporting the problem can provide photos. He said the identities of persons reporting on their neighbors’ properties will be kept confidential.

Both officials spoke of the time-consuming nature of the Township’s efforts to force an owner to save a deteriorating building.

Audience member Kathy Arlt spoke for many when she asked why the Township seems to allow buildings to reach an extreme state of disrepair before taking serious action. “Why aren’t violations being written earlier?” she asked.

Neither Bishop nor Doolittle quite came to grips with that question, but Doolittle did try to explain some of the procedural barriers to quick action against a derelict building owner. Sometimes, he said, the owner is deceased, or the building is owned by a corporation and it is hard to determine who is the responsible person. Sometimes an owner escapes into bankruptcy. He also spoke of stalling tactics used by some recalcitrant owners. For instance, owners will give his department evidence that they have ordered materials to make repairs, or claim they are in the process of filing a repair proposal with the HPC, in order to get a delay in enforcement; then they will fail to follow through with those plans.

Bringing an owner to court, with all of the legal impediments involved, can take as long as a year, he said, and then after the Township does obtain a court order, the owner can appeal.

“So you can see the frustrations,” Doolittle said. “It may seem like we’re sitting on our hands, but that’s not the case.”

Bishop said the law provides elaborate protections of a property owner’s rights. “That’s how the system works,” he said. In extreme situations, the Township Committee has taken control of an unsafe building in order to have it demolished, Bishop said, but “it’s not something the governing body does frivolously.”

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Several reports by HOA officials followed the main speakers. Barbara Burns reported that the organization hopes to have a new website up and running by the end of March. She showed screen projections of what some of the site’s pages will look like. The site will allow people to send questions to the HOA. People will also be able to sign up to receive email notices of meetings and other information, she said, and the minutes of meetings will be published

Ann Horan, the HOA treasurer, said annual membership dues will be increased this year from $8 to $10. This is because the organization’s expenses are starting to exceed its income. The HOA has been losing members, she explained.

Joan Caputo, newly appointed as a trustee, will head a membership committee that will seek to recruit new members.

Joan Venezia heads a new six-member committee on the North End Redevelopment. The committee, she said, will be seeking ideas on how to make the project “more favorable to the residents” of Ocean Grove. Anyone wishing to pass along a suggestion, idea or concern to this committee can send an email to OGNorthEnd@gmail.com.

Eventually, the committee will bring a set of recommendations before the membership. Once approved, those will be passed on to the Township officials who are negotiating the project’s details with the developers.

And finally, Kennedy Buckley, an HOA trustee, is collecting suggestions for improving Ocean Grove’s parking situation. Anyone with an idea to share can email Buckley at poppop.12@verizon.net.

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