Potential conflict of interest dismissed; bank’s plan denied

Synergy Bank

By gloria stravelli
Staff Writer

Potential conflict of interest dismissed; bank’s plan denied

Synergy Bank’s plan for Monmouth St. office deemed wrong for site

By gloria stravelli

Staff Writer

Should a Red Bank Planning Board member have recused himself during hearings on Synergy Bank’s application for a branch in Red Bank because the realty firm he works for represents a competing bank?

Planning Board member Daniel Mancuso doesn’t think so.

"The firm has represented Commerce Bank in the past, but I don’t personally," said Mancuso, a broker and executive vice president with Murphy Realty Preferred Homes, Rumson.

Mancuso confirmed that the realty firm has represented Commerce Bank for local site development on three or four occasions.

Mancuso sat through two hearings on an application by Cranford-based Synergy Bank to build a branch and drive-through facility on Monmouth Street and, along with five other board members, voted to deny the application on March 24.

According to Mancuso, his position with Murphy Realty doesn’t represent a conflict of interest. "Commerce is already open in Red Bank," he explained. "I think if Commerce and Synergy were competing for a location then it could appear as a conflict. But Commerce is already open in Red Bank and is not seeking any more sites in Red Bank.

"We get involved in only a tiny percentage of Commerce real estate," Mancuso added. "We’ve done three or four deals in Monmouth County; we don’t even handle all their Monmouth County real estate. I’ve never personally been involved."

Planning Board Attorney Michael Leckstein said he doesn’t think the fact that Mancuso’s realty firm scouts locations for a competing bank represents a conflict of interest in the matter of the Synergy application.

"It appears his company at one time represented Commerce Bank, but I don’t see that currently there would be a conflict," he said. "If somebody eats in a restaurant does that mean when the restaurant comes in for a change that they have to disqualify themselves?"

Not present at the Synergy hearings was Red Bank Mayor Edward J.McKenna Jr., who said Tuesday he skipped the proceedings because his law firm once represented Synergy.

"I recused myself because my law firm represented Synergy when it was a federal credit union. They were my client," McKenna explained. "In Dan’s case, does that mean I can’t vote on any application involving a law office or that Dr. Guy Maratta can’t vote on an application involving a chiropractor?

"To say that because Murphy Realty did work for Commerce Bank, which happens to be one of the banks in town, that he has to recuse himself from any other application involving a bank — that’s absurd," McKenna continued. Kevin Wenthen, senior vice president and chief administrative officer of the $500 million-asset Synergy, said he wasn’t aware of Mancuso’s professional affiliation and declined further comment on the issue or on the question of whether Synergy would appeal the board’s denial.

"We’re still very interested in the Red Bank area and intend to continue to pursue having a location in that market area," he said.

Established in 1954, Synergy currently operates 18 branches in the state, four of which are located in Monmouth County.

In a unanimous vote, the Planning Board denied Synergy’s application to locate a branch at 163-165 Monmouth St./80 Oakland St. near the Red Bank Train Station.

Members cited factors including traffic flow onto surrounding streets, problematic circulation within the bank parking lot, and inadequate front setback as reasons for the vote. In general, there was an unwillingness to approve new construction that would require numerous variances.

Synergy’s application sought approval to demolish an existing residence and an auto body shop to permit construction of a 3,550-square-foot branch with a remote drive-through canopy and 16 parking spots on a 25,000-square-foot site fronting Monmouth, West and Oakland streets. The bank is contract purchaser of the site.

A permitted use in the BR-2 and BR-1 zones in which the three lots involved are located, the branch bank application sought variances including front-yard setback, 25 feet required by ordinance while 11 feet was proposed; front-yard setback for accessory structures (the drive-through), 20 feet required while 5 feet was proposed; and size of the accessory structure, 500 square feet maximum allowed and 800 square feet proposed. Design waivers included minimum width of a two-way driveway with 24 feet required and 21.8 feet proposed, and minimum clearance to adjacent property lines with 1 foot proposed while 3 feet are required.

The proposed branch would have driveways on Monmouth, West and Oakland streets. In reviewing the application, Planning Board Engineer George Whelan, of T&M Associates, Middletown, told the board circulation within the parking lot and drive-through was not acceptable.

Located 200 feet to the rear of the branch, the proposed drive-through facility would have three drive-up windows, including an ATM lane, and no bypass lane.

According to Whelan, cars stacked in the drive-through lanes could block ingress and egress at the West Street driveway and force traffic to circulate on borough streets to enter at the Monmouth Street driveway. In addition, he said vehicles might be forced to stack on West Street while waiting to use the drive-through, and vehicles that entered the parking lot and could not find a spot had no room to turn around and exit the lot.

Synergy came to the March 24 hearing with a modified plan for the parking lot, including converting one drive-through lane to a bypass lane, eliminating parking spots to provide room for turning around, reducing the size of the drive-through canopy, and making the Monmouth Street driveway two-way, with right-turn-only egress.

The 21.8-foot width of the two-way drive from the branch to the remote drive-through facility remained, with traffic engineer John Harder noting that industry standards allow a 20-foot-wide aisle for two-way traffic. Large vehicles, he acknowledged, would have to pass through the aisle single file.

"Any development would be faced with this challenge," Harder said.

"We don’t want to create problems with new construction," replied board member Borough Administrator Stanley Sickels.

"We made changes because of the board’s concerns," Synergy attorney Peter Liska said, but board members continued to have reservations about the application, including concerns that traffic exiting onto Monmouth Street would add to existing traffic buildup that occurs when the railroad gates are down.

Harder revealed that two on-street parking spots would have to be eliminated to accommodate the West Street access.

Councilman John Curley observed that traffic problems would be worsened by a condominium development proposed for the corner of Monmouth and West streets.

"My concern is when you have a buildup coming from the railroad, the potential is for vehicles cutting through and dispersing on Oakland and Monmouth streets. It could create a safety issue," he said.

"I’m still not comfortable with the front-yard setback or the aisle width," Mancuso said.

"I’m concerned with queuing and with an ATM that’s 200 feet from the building," said Sickels, who made a motion to deny the application.

Liska intervened. "Before you say no," he said, "can we hear what the feeling of board members is?"

"You’re starting with a clean slate," Mancuso offered. "I’m not comfortable. You’ll tear a building down to build one without front-yard setback. I’m not comfortable with the 21.8-foot aisle. I’m concerned about the West Street entrance, although you need it, and I think the drive-through being there at all is a problem."

Sickels said his concern centered on the narrow width of the two-way aisle and the difficulties it would pose for emergency vehicles.

"We’re wiping this property clean. The configuration is what it is. I’m not in favor of a variance for the setback," he said. "With a clean slate, you should be able to eliminate the setback variance. I’m opposed to West Street access; it’s too short a block and will impact parking and traffic.

"Three driveway accesses in the area will aggravate problems of traffic due to the train," he continued. "This is the application on this site, and I am not comfortable with it given the existing conditions," he said.

"It’s zoned for it," observed Leckstein, "but not every parcel in a zone has to be adaptable for every use in the zone."