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Posts Tagged ‘Neptune Township Master Plan’

Home Owners pledge allegiance to the flag. Photos by Mary Walton

By Charles Layton

The Ocean Grove Home Owners Association pressed its case against the Neptune Planning Board’s proposed new Master Plan on Saturday, dropping hints of legal action over one section of the plan relating to building decisions.

Although the Association has complaints about several aspects of the Planning Board’s new plan, the part that drew nearly all the attention at Saturday’s meeting was a proposal to create a Land Use Advisory Committee within the Township bureaucracy. The Association fears that this new entity could usurp the authority of the Zoning Board, potentially to the detriment of Ocean Grove.

The Planning Board, an 11-member body appointed by the Township Committee, has been working for many months on a complete rewrite of the Master Plan, which guides decisions on land use and zoning throughout Neptune Township.

The purpose of the proposed new Land Use Advisory Committee would be to review certain building applications. Critics say this body could end up making decisions in private that should be made in public by the Zoning Board or Planning Board, both of which are composed mainly of private citizens.

The Historical Society of Ocean Grove and the Historic Preservation Commission have raised similar objections to the advisory committee idea.

At least two Home Owners trustees, Barbara Burns and Francis Paladino, have argued that such a committee may be illegal. In October, the organization’s membership approved a letter stating that the proposal “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.”

Edna Dierk makes a point about the Master Plan

“We could in theory sue to stop that provision of the plan,” Burns told the members. Ann Horan, the group’s treasurer, noted in her financial report that the Association has $29,450 in its legal fund and remarked that some of that money “might be needed sooner rather than later.”

Burns and other trustees told the members that the Planning Board had dismissed their concerns when they voiced them at its most recent meeting, on November 9. She said the board was “very disrespectful.” Donald Hooper, speaking from the audience, said he had attended that meeting and “It was a classic example of don’t bother me with the facts, my mind is made up.”

The audience at the Home Owners meeting, consisting of about 45 people, seemed in agreement with the above criticisms. No one spoke in defense of the Planning Board or its proposals.

When a discussion arose about the best way for individual Ocean Grovers to voice their disapproval to the Planning Board, Horan suggested that people complain to Randy Bishop, who is a township committeeman, a resident of Ocean Grove and also a member of the Planning Board.

“One of the reasons to focus on Randy,” Burns observed, “is that he is an elected official. He’s the only one who’s subject to the approval or disapproval of the voters.”

Bishop was among those who defended the creation of the new advisory committee at the November meeting, contending that it was only meant to formalize a process that already takes place when matters of small significance need to be decided, such as whether to move something a few inches to avoid having to seek a zoning variance.

The Planning Board will hold a meeting in December — not open to the public — to discuss what revisions to make to its Master Plan draft based on the public comments it received on November 9. It will then publish an updated draft on the Township’s website.

On January 25, the Board is scheduled to meet in public session, although members of the public will not be allowed to comment. At that time, the Board may vote on final adoption of the Master Plan. However, the proposals in the new plan still would not become law until acted on by the Township Committee.

To read the Home Owners Association’s letter to the Planning Board, go here.

To read about the November 9 confrontation between the Planning Board and Ocean Grove organizations, including the Home Owners, 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.

Trustee Joan Caputo and Home Owners President Denis McCarthy took a moment to promote the new Home Owners hats, which cost $10. "They make a great holiday gift," Caputo said. At left is Ann Horan, the treasurer.

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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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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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By Charles Layton

OK, all you zoning and land use nerds, we’ve reached the really important stage in the rewriting of Neptune Township’s Master Plan. Time to pay attention.

The draft proposal for the plan’s “land use element” – which deals in large part with policy and zoning issues for Ocean Grove – has just been posted online.

The proposal was written by a special committee created by the Planning Board. It deals with things like the density of our residential areas, the extent to which the flared setback should be protected (or not) and proposals to rewrite the entire zoning code for Ocean Grove, including things like the definition of building height limits.

This proposal is just that, a proposal. It is subject to change, for the better or for the worse. It will be aired at a Planning Board meeting on September 14 at 7 p.m. in the Committee Meeting Room at the municipal building, and there will be opportunity for public questions and input. But for Ocean Grovers to have effective input, they need to read and understand this document.

The proposal on land use is one of 10 “elements” of the overall Master Plan draft. The land use element is 34 pages long and begins with general statements about protecting the character of existing neighborhoods, with particular reference to the Historic District of Ocean Grove. It speaks of “maintaining the character, scale and privacy of established residential neighborhoods,” ensuring that renovations and new construction “are compatible with existing neighborhood character” and paying attention “to overall residential densities.”

These are pretty words. (If they were taken at face value it’s hard to see how the proposed North End hotel/condominium complex could be built, but nevermind.) The most interesting part of the document comes toward the end, in the “Recommendations” section, and especially beginning on page 28, which deals quite specifically with Ocean Grove. That section contains a proposal that the Township Land Development Ordinance regulations pertaining to Ocean Grove be reviewed and rewritten. That rewrite, one imagines, could get sticky.

Therefore, be it resolved that all concerned Ocean Grovers look this document over, print it out, scribble notes in the margins of it, discuss it among ourselves, attend the September 14 meeting, and remain vigilant as the process moves along. It’s a long process, and there’ll be time for suggestions and debate. But the time to get interested and start raising questions is right now.

NOTE: For a free, downloadable copy of the draft of the entire proposed new Master Plan, click on this link:   Master plan link  Be warned, however, that the document is very difficult to read online, and the maps it includes are so small that their details are almost a blurr.

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