By John Burton
SEA BRIGHT – The Mad Hatter rebuilding project may have been approved but it has another day before the borough land use board.
As ordered by state Superior Court in Freehold, the borough’s Unified Planning and Zoning Board of Adjustment will have another bite at the apple on May 18, when it holds an additional hearing for the long-delayed project to rebuild and expand the Mad Hatter bar and restaurant, damaged by Super Storm Sandy in October 2012 and now subject to an ongoing appeal to overturn the board’s prior approval.
Following a hearing in February related to the appeal of the board’s July 2016 approval, Judge Lisa Thornton remanded the matter back to the local board to again hold a hearing on the resolution granting site plan variance approval for the project which, in essence, allows the owners of the Mad Hatter, 10 East Ocean Ave., to move forward with the planned project. The existing damaged structure had been razed last year.
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 its list of scheduled board meetings for the year, as required under the state act covering public meetings.
By all indications, individual hearings on the Mad Hatter project application were properly advertised by the applicant and the borough.
The Mad Hatter was a longstanding popular night spot that was substantially damaged by Super Storm Sandy. Its owners, Brian and Amy Kelly under their holding company, Kelly Management Group, decided to rebuild. After securing a $5 million low-interest loan from the state Economic Development Authority and years of planning and deliberation, the owners looked to expand what they had with the business, seeking to construct a completely new 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.
The Kellys had strong local support from area residents and former patrons, who saw this project as another step toward Sea Bright’s continuing rehabilitation following the devastation from Sandy.
Jennifer Walsh, a neighboring homeowner, voiced concerns and objections about the size and scope of the project and what it would mean for her quality of life. Walsh, who campaigned unsuccessfully as a 2016 Republican borough council candidate, hired Red Bank lawyer Ron Gasiorowski, noted for representing development objectors, and filed an appeal in Superior Court last October charging the land use board acted in an “arbitrary, capricious and unreasonable,” manner by granting the approval.
Gasiorowski recently represented a residential objector to the planned Shadowbrook catering facility renovation and expansion project in Shrewsbury, where Thornton remanded the matter back to the local board on the same grounds. In that case, the board hearing was limited to the public who said they were unaware or unable to offer comments when that application initially was heard, followed by the board’s reaffirming the approval. That matter is again before Thornton.
For the Mad Hatter, it remains to be seen how much the board and its attorney will permit before taking another vote on the application.
Board attorney Kerry Higgins did not return phone calls seeking comment.
But Gasiorowski said he plans to seek a full hearing, believing “We should start all over again. I think we have to.”
Gasiorowski acknowledged “everybody has to have a certain degree of empathy for the Kellys,” given the ordeal of securing financing and under taking the rebuilding. “But,” he added, “they’re just being greedy. They’re not attempting to build something that’s reasonable.”
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