Mad Hatter Approved Again But Still Faces Legal Challenge

June 1, 2017
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An architectural rendering for the proposed re-imagined Mad Hatter restaurant and bar on Sea Bright’s Ocean Avenue.

By John Burton |

SEA BRIGHT – It was déjà vu all over again last week for both sides involved in the Mad Hatter project.

The borough land use board last Thursday once again took up the matter of the Ocean Avenue restaurant rebuilding and expansion plan, as mandated by the state Superior Court. And as had been the case when the last board heard the plan, the project was approved by a significant majority. But it may not be the final word on the matter.

Seven of the board members voted in favor of upholding its previous approval, with one member abstaining from this final vote.

Prior to the vote at the hearing, Mayor Dina Long, who sits on the combined planning board and zoning board of adjustment, told what became a standing-room-only crowd of Mad Hatter supporters, “I spent the last 4 1⁄2 years planning and building a Sea Bright that was stormproof,” referencing the work that was required as the borough recovered from the devastation wrought by Super Storm Sandy, which included the storm-damaged Mad Hatter. Of the plan to reconstruct the restaurant/bar being proposed by owners Scott and Amy Kelly, Long said, “I see that as a benefit to their rebuilding.”

This hearing was ordered on April 10 by Monmouth County Superior Court Assignment Judge Lisa P. Thornton, who remanded the matter back to the local board in response to an appeal of the board’s initial June 30, 2016 approval. The appeal was brought by a residential neighbor, Jennifer Walsh, who opposes the plan, charging it will create noise, traffic, parking and quality-of-life concerns for her and other area homeowners and overly impact on the municipality’s infrastructure. Thornton determined that the borough land use board acted improperly and violated the Open Public Meetings Act. Thornton found the board neglected to contact two separate borough-authorized publications to announce the list of scheduled board meetings for the year, as required under the state act covering public meetings.

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The Kellys, doing business as the Kelly Management Group, are looking to rebuild and expand their business, the Mad Hatter, 10 East Ocean Ave., a popular night spot that has operated for a number of years in the mixed commercial and residential zone, until the structure was severely damaged by Sandy in October 2012. The Kellys have since demolished the existing structure but were prevented from obtaining construction permits by Thornton’s order, according to Kevin Asadi, the Kellys’ attorney.

Scott and Amy Kelly are planning to move forward with re-opening their Mad Hatter night spot, despite the possibility of further legal challenges by a neighbor. Photo by John Burton

The Kellys are seeking to construct a completely new elevated three-story structure that would include a full-service restaurant; an outdoor kiosk for takeout food and retail items; and upper levels to be used for bars and outdoor decks. Scott Kelly said he plans on having live entertainment and a building-wide stereo system during business hours, which would go to 2 a.m. The project needed variances for the size of the structure and for a substantial parking shortfall, providing only seven spaces onsite, while existing regulations would require 134 spaces to accommodate what could be upward of 312 patrons.

Based upon the judge’s decree, the board conducted this additional hearing, with the board again advertising it, and granting the public the opportunity to offer comments. Asadi argued this meeting “should be deemed inconsequential” given his client provided legal advertising as did the board.

“Nobody could argue these hearings were held in secret,” he maintained. The board conducted nine hearings, starting on Nov. 12, 2015, most of them quite lengthy, with testimony from professional witnesses representing both sides, lawyers’ arguments and public comments.

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“Regardless, we are here,” Asadi conceded, as the hearing proceeded.

“I think we went out of our way to listen to every single professional,” said board chairman C. Lance Cunningham. “I was very interested in hearing both sides of the fence.”

Attorney Alexis Gasiorowski, associate and daughter of lawyer Ron Gasiorowski, who has been representing Walsh, formally offered an objection. Alexis Gasiorowski maintained the judge’s order for what is called in the law a de novo review requires beginning the process again and rehearing the application, an argument board attorney Kerry Higgins rejected.

For the public hearing, no one from the large collection in attendance chose to offer comment. And upon adjournment, the crowd offered a large round of applause. While the development application had met with some opposition, it also fostered considerable support. Many area residents and former patrons saw the Mad Hatter’s rebuilding as a symbol of Sea Bright’s continuing rebounding from the effects of Sandy.

Board members cited the Kellys’ willingness to address concerns and amend the plan as part of their rationale for approving the application.

“I think they were back and forth for a long time to make it work,” said board member Jon Schwartz, referring to Mad Hatter’s owners.

As for the project’s future, “We’re ready to roll,” said Amy Kelly, at the hearing’s conclusion. They plan on obtaining the needed permits as soon as possible to commence work. “We’ll be moving forward,” Scott Kelly added, noting construction is expected to take approximately 20 weeks.

Ron Gasiorowski had said previously the board approval will again be challenged in Thornton’s court and the Kellys proceed with building at their own peril.

Walsh, who ran unsuccessfully as a Republican candidate for borough council last year, is also appealing the board’s approval for another project in the vicinity of her home – allowing a property owner to construct a multi-family residence where a single-family home had been.

This article was first published in the May 25-June 1, 2017 print edition of The Two River Times.

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