Fait Accompli - Highlands Redevelopment

Well, thanks to former Councilwoman Claudette D’Arrigo I got to hear at least parts of last night’s all important meeting in Highlands.

That’s the meeting when they were talking about changing the town from anything to high rise buildings on some portions on Bay Avenue…forget the view of the folks on the hill…..to Pier Village in Long Branch, or to what one person called the monstrosities in Atlantic Highlands.

It was a meeting to give the planners the opportunity to tell what the whole Bay Avenue redevelopment district idea is all about.

But the meeting was not important enough for the governing body to present on Zoom or even have telephone connections so people who could not get to the meeting, you know, like people with disabilities, could have input or even listen in.

But MS D’Arrigo, as she has done at several meetings in the past, brought along her trusty phone and put the two hour long meeting on Facebook.

Now there’s a woman who really thinks the people not only want to know what’s going on but she wants to provide a way for them to do it. On her own. So thanks for that, Claudette.

Thanks from me and the 286 views your Facebook presentation prompted. Heck, that’s triple? Quadruple? the number who were at the meeting.

Of course perhaps not many were at the meeting, I daresay less than one percent of the borough’s population because they really had to search on the borough’s official page to even find out about it. Or remember back to Sept 17 when the Mayor boldly announced last night notice of the meeting appeared in the Asbury Park Press. Yes, she’s right, if it were there…and I did not check, you have to buy the paper to see legals…the borough met the law on publicly advertising a meeting. For something of this importance, and if you really, really wanted input from the folks, wouldn’t you have at least reminded them a month later of the little legal notice or made it a big notice on the borough’s official page?

I don’t know Claudette; I’ve met her a couple of times, talked to her several times after the death of a close mutual friend, but can’t say I really know her. Just that she seems to have done a lot of research, knows a lot about government and laws governing government and truly cares that people become well informed and have every opportunity to ask whatever questions they need answered -before any decisions are made.

I don’t know the Mayor either. But I really kind of like her. She’s gutsy, she knows what she wants, and she knows how to go about getting it. Can’t hate a woman like that. Strong. Determined. In control, at least as far as I’ve seen. Lots of good stuff.

It’s the residents of Highlands I’m having a bit of a query over.

Last night was a public meeting, albeit poorly advertised. It was a meeting attended by the entire council, yet only Councilwoman Linda Mazzola had any questions.

Have the other elected officials already made up their minds and who cares what the people know or don’t know, or do they just know so much about this plan that they don’t have a single question about it?

The borough administrator was there, another seemingly very nice guy. But doesn’t he get paid the big bucks for “administering” borough business? Should not he have been the one to lead the show with the planners, not the Mayor? I would hope he knows enough about the redevelopment plan to have been able to do what the Mayor did…field the questions, walk around with the mike, tell people when they were going off topic or saying something he didn’t like or want them to say at that time.

Don’t the people care about that?

Don’t the people care that when one person complained he had only heard about the meeting from somewhere other than official sources, he was told it was properly advertised and his complaining about it was off subject?

There was an attorney and a planner there, both well paid for their time and talent, and both wonderfully capable of using both. Couldn’t they simply conduct the meeting themselves and let the mayor sit at the table and listen, like the other councilmembers?

People of Highlands…doesn’t any of this make any difference to you?

Do you even know the mayor owns a business right smack in the middle of this redevelopment plan?

Do you even care she is a strong advocate of the program which is designed to help all businesses in the redevelopment zone, her own included?

Do you even wonder that her deep involvement in advocating this plan could be construed as a serious conflict of interest?

Do you wonder whether someone might file suit against the borough because of this perceived conflict of interest which apparently the borough attorney knows about and permits?

Do you even care that even if it did come to a lawsuit, and the borough won, what that would cost you to defend it?

Don’t any of you long time residents, one, two or three generations of you, cringe in the least when the Mayor spouts history of the borough and is wrong in her facts?

So, that being said, here’s what I got out of the meeting, acknowledging the presentation provided by Claudette wasn’t perfect:

The area under consideration is 20 acres, 155 different lots, includes parks, commercial and residential businesses and borough owned property, but that wasn’t mentioned in the synopsis.

It has a great setting and has plenty of parking, though not all in exactly the right place, and it has assets and potential. As far as negatives, the planner said it comes as no surprise that flooding is an issue. I might add here that throughout the rest of the night, I never did hear a plan that would prevent flooding to continue to be an issue, other than higher buildings would be built and people will live higher off the ground.

But the planner continued there are some economic conditions that are less than favorable like a limited market area, logical when you consider it’s a limited size, predominately residential town.

The Redevelopment plan the governing body wants to have all squared away by January of next year (good thing there were members of each of the three slates running for council at the meeting…the mayor plans on introducing the ordinance at the reorganization meeting in January, so get up to speed quickly.)

The planners made it clear there shall be no eminent domain with this plan, nobody’s house is being taken from him, no business that’s here is going to be forced to shut down, nobody is going to come in and force anyone to sell his house or property.

He didn’t address the fact you might be forced to sell because your little building squeezed between two very tall ones might need more maintenance because of lack of sunlight, fresh air or even stability underfoot.

The residents asked a lot of intelligent questions as well. Councilwoman Mazzola wondered why a plan to bring people into the town to use a thriving business district didn’t start at the entrance to town by the bridge, inferring it’s pretty logical, as Maria Von Trapp would say, “let’s start at the very beginning.” She was told there was only limited money and time, that could be taken up at a later time in a later plan.

That song again…..”beginning…a very good place to start….

There was another wise gentleman who asked if there had been any studies about the waterfront area for redevelopment? After all, he said, it’s a waterfront town, Sea Streak brings people in by water, wouldn’t it make sense to have all these new business where the people are coming in?

What are the delivery plans for bringing those people to the new shops and businesses? Wouldn’t that be a good place to start? The waterfront, where local businesses have already proven it could be profitable for them? Never got an answer to his question on research but was advised it is something that could be ”maybe down the road.”

No, the area really isn’t only Bay Ave. another woman was told. It really includes part of South Second St. and Shore Drive, and it only starts west of Veterans Park. It wasn’t discussed, but of course for some reason, the plan looks like it goes just to the edge of the road going into Marina Bay Court, then stops, and starts again on the other side of the road. I didn’t understand that at all, but liked the woman who said she’s charmed by so much about Highlands and was attracted to it three years ago just as it is and thinks “we’re a funky, artsy seaside village.”

The gentleman who asked what trees would be wiped out was advised that’s a question for another meeting.

No, was the answer to another question, there haven’t been any studies down on the types of businesses that would work and avoid empty store fronts like are visible now. “Fair enough” was the planners’ response. But nothing was said again about perhaps doing that kind of study. Nor to the one about what will make it better than it is now for new businesses to come in.

The planner did say that study isn’t part of this plan, but experience shows more density and more height of buildings would help.

In the end, it really came down to concerns about parking, lack of it for all this big business that will be brought in or too much because it would be necessary to accommodate all the new residents and new business., And height. Lots of height. There were lots of questions about that. Three, four or five stories, depending on where you begin the count, on the paved first level, or the commercial business below two, three or four levels of apartments above it. Or the decks on top, does that add a floor?

There was that business owner on Bay avenue who said she only has a one story but very successful business drawn from all over the area as far as Ocean County and in other states. She said she would love to have residential above her building, did not say why she has not constructed that now in an area where it is presently allowed, redevelopment approval or not. She did say three or four floors would be nice and she’s sorry if somebody behind her can’t see any more….”that’s development” she explained.

Nor was there an answer to the question about whether the county officials have been involved, what with Bay Avenue being a county road. Here’s where the planner showed a lack of experience working with county officials. “They shouldn’t get in the way…. “ he said. Did not say how long it would take the county to study it before making any decisions. He didn’t even seem to know that in the neighboring town, also with a county owned main street, they couldn’t even get diagonal parking approved in areas already approved for parking. Or that that borough is also faced with horrendous parking problems they are trying to work out with a lot of help, even though they have a long established parking committee that thoroughly studying the problems the new ‘residential above commercial’ influx of residents have caused. No studies on potential parking problems were done in that town before approvals were granted either.

No worry about the appearance of buildings either, the planner explained. The new ordinances would be so rigid that even the amount of glass covering the front of the building, or the type of material used to build it, would be dictated to the private owner.

It was the former mayor who sat quietly through the meeting but took the mike at the end and agreed that “something has to be done.” He agreed it has to be done carefully and there’s a lot of weight on the shoulders of the council making the decisions. And there will still be a flood problem he said. Everybody in town should be included when making these decisions, not just those in the redevelopment area. He said people like himself who live on the hill won’t like buildings so high that they destroy their water view, . “I don’t want to look at roofs,” he said, nor do his neighbors. He said the people on all the other streets in downtown Highlands, like Second st and Fourth st. should be considered for the additional traffic it will mean for their quiet residential area, and reminded them the busy shopping district would be in their back yard.

He won some friends and applause for his comments. But he did not have any solutions either or even offer whether the town needs a redevelopment area.

Wednesday is the regular Highlands Council meeting. Be sure to check the agenda and read the resolutions on the borough’s official page, That’s the next step in moving the Redevelopment project along. Action will be taken, it seems, on whether the planner will be authorized to proceed further.


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