Condo hearings offer a lesson in local politics

Staff Writer

Staff Writer

Oakland Street homes are sporting signs protesting proposed development.Oakland Street homes are sporting signs protesting proposed development.

RED BANK — Gerry Haggerty never paid much attention to local politics until it began to infringe on his property.

"We are so disturbed by the town’s administration. We have to get the corruption out," said Haggerty, a resident of Oakland Street who has been avidly protesting a Zoning Board application to build a condominium and townhouse project on the corner of Monmouth and West streets. "I wish I never got involved in all this. I don’t even want to know these things."

Those things, according to Haggerty, are possible conflicts of interest on the borough’s Zoning Board of Adjustment, too close for comfort relationships between borough officials and Zoning Board applicants, and borough-based Realtors and developers voting on future development in Red Bank.

Haggerty’s allegations are hotly disputed by local officials, including the mayor.

The “It’s Too Big” slogan refers to the size of a development proposed for Monmouth and West streets in Red Bank, which will be located behind houses such as this one.The “It’s Too Big” slogan refers to the size of a development proposed for Monmouth and West streets in Red Bank, which will be located behind houses such as this one.

The controversy began nearly a year ago when Patrick Nulle and Danny Murphy, principals in the borough-based development company Building and Land Technologies, won approval for a use variance that increased the level of development permitted on a property at the corner of Monmouth and West streets. The parcel is approximately 1.2 acres and currently holds two houses, a car wash and a U-Haul rental facility.

The developer is now before the Zoning Board seeking site plan approval for the design of the project. The next hearing on the site plan is slated for Oct. 2.

If approved, 24 condominiums and five townhomes will be built on the site.

"About a year ago, when we first heard that they wanted to build a condo in our neighborhood, we thought it would clean up that area," Haggerty said. "But when we heard that the project was going to be right in our back yards, with no buffers or anything, we decided to attend the Zoning Board hearings."

Feeling that their concerns were not being taken seriously by the board, some area residents took steps to make sure their issues were addressed.

Michael Reeps, of Oakland Street, hired attorney Lawrence Carton to represent them at the hearings, while Haggerty and a group of concerned citizens posted signs of protest in front of their homes, wrote letters to elected officials, and funded their own Web site:

Probing and prodding through the borough’s public records and financial statements, Haggerty said he was shocked to discover that some Zoning Board members were also active members of Red Bank’s real estate and building community.

Marie Murphy, who has sat on board since January, owns Murphy Realty — a real estate corporation with an office based on Maple Avenue, according to the borough clerk’s office.

Though Murphy has recused herself from the site plan portion of the pending application, she supported the heightened density variance last January.

Arthur Murphy (no relation to Marie), who has sat on the Zoning Board since January 2002 and was appointed to the Borough Council on Tuesday, owns a building and contracting company in town. He recently completed a residential building project on Harrison Avenue and River Road in Red Bank.

According to the Department of Community Affairs Local Government Ethics Law, developers and builders are permitted to sit on zoning and planning boards as long as they do not benefit financially from the projects they vote on.

Some residents, Haggerty among them, think the practice should be terminated altogether.

"It’s a built-in bias for them," Haggerty said. "It’s their business. My brother-in-law is a builder and he can’t understand why we are arguing against the project . It’s a built-in bias in the way they think."

Mayor Edward McKenna, who hand picked all of the borough’s zoning and planning board members, said having Realtors and developers on those boards is an advantage for Red Bank.

"Why wouldn’t I appoint them to the board? I know they have the intelligence and expertise to handle the applications. To suggest anything contrary is silly. Other towns do the same thing. They get people who know the business."

As for residents’ concerns that Marie Murphy would eventually make a profit off a project that she voted on, McKenna said he hopes that won’t happen.

"If she was planning on doing that, I assume that she would recuse herself," he said.

As he proceeded in his investigation, Haggerty said he was disheartened to find how tightly wound the net of borough officials are.

As is typical in most towns, the Zoning Board members are closely tied to the party that controls the governing body. Members who have no direct interest in building or development — Lauren Nicosia, who works for Planned Parenthood; Saul Diamond, who is employed by a credit union; and Josephine Lee, who is retired — are closely tied in with the borough’s Democratic Party, which has controlled the town for more than a decade.

While such affiliations are not unusual, residents’ eyebrows were raised by the fact that Zoning Board Chairman Michael DuPont is McKenna’s law partner.

DuPont has recused himself from the Building and Land Technologies application. He said he has represented people on both sides of the case in other matters.

Residents said they have also found that Nulle’s wife, Alexis, who has signed checks for Building and Land Technologies, works as a Realtor in Marie Murphy’s Red Bank office.

In an Aug. 28 interview, Alexis Nulle said she was not a licensed Realtor at the time the use variance was approved. She also said she has never met Marie Murphy.

Residents are unconvinced.

"We feel like this is a big political situation rather than our officials being concerned about the citizens, and the town being concerned about the town," Haggerty said. "We’re not a bunch of crazy citizens. We feel we’re being duped by Borough Council."

McKenna said Haggerty’s allegations were "most ridiculous."

"Any suggestion of [corruption] is foolishness and I resent it," the mayor said. "Whoever would say something like that is an idiot."

If Building and Land Technologies’ application is approved, residents said they may take Red Bank to court.

"There is a lot of money involved in doing that," Haggerty said. "But it may come to that."