In Long Branch, they don’t need no stinkin’ commission

Coda • GREG BEAN

Are your town elders being bothered by pesky members of the local Historical Commission who don’t want to tear down historic buildings so a new Starbucks can go up (attention, Milltown)?

Then you ought to take a lesson from Long Branch Mayor Adam Schneider and his rubber stamp City Council (with one notable exception). The problem, Schneider would undoubtedly tell them, is that they allowed the creation of a Historical Commission in the first place. It’s kind of like giving women the right to vote and drive a car, he’d say. Once you give in, you’ve given yourself no end of headaches, and you can’t ever take it back.

That’s why he and his buddies are treating the proposal to create such a commission, a Historic Preservation Advisory Commission — first made in 2007 by the lone dissenting member, Councilman Brian Unger — like it’s a land grab by the Taliban.

They absolutely do not want this notion to be adopted, so they’ve done everything in their power to kill it before it’s born with one lame concern and postponement after another.

The most recent postponement was last week, when its introduction was once again put off until May 12. As this is written, I don’t know the outcome of the introduction, but I think Unger’s proposal has about as much chance of being adopted as Moammar Kadafi has of winning the Nobel Peace Prize.

Historic preservation commissions, even if they only have the power to advise, just aren’t the way they do business in Long Branch. There, the ruling junta likes to just take what they want without a lot of interference. They don’t listen to anyone.

“We don’t need no stinking badges,” they say. “And we sure don’t need no stinking Historical Commission.”

Long Branch, after all, is the city that became the national poster child for eminent domain abuse when it started grabbing nice family homes on the beachfront so private developers could build high-priced condominiums. Then they started grabbing downtown properties so other private developers could build other expensive stuff. Granted, they backed off their eminent domain feeding frenzy a bit after they got their wrists slapped by the court of public opinion, the state appeals court and the state’s public advocate, but the mind-set hasn’t changed one iota.

You ought to hear the lame reasons they’re “worried” about the creation of a Historic Preservation Commission that might save a handful of historic buildings.

Schneider, for example, expressed “concern” that a lot of the buildings that might be designated as historical are churches.

“I don’t think I want to be in the business of regulating churches,” he said.

Council President Michael DeStefano and Councilman David Brown said they were “worried” about safety issues in historical buildings, because they are, well, old.

“Who maintains them?” DeStefano reportedly asked. “Sometimes, things like this can become more burdens than anything else.”

Brown jumped right on that bandwagon but had his own doubts. “An individual home, just because it’s here 100 or 200 years, doesn’tmean it should stay. Especially if it’s a fire hazard,” Brown said.

And there you are. It’s sad that even if they do eventually get

around to establishing some kind of Historical Commission in Long Branch, it’s already too late to preserve most of the really historical structures in that community, becasue they have already been torn down. The summer homes of U.S. Presidents

Arthur, Hayes and others? Gone. Torn down by the wrecking ball. The beautiful summer home of President U.S. Grant on Ocean Avenue, the place that served as the summer White House for seven years? Gone. Torn down by the wrecking ball.

The hotel where President Garfield died, the Elberon Hotel? Gone. Torn down by the wrecking ball. And unfortunately, that’s only a few structures on the list of treasures lost in Long Branch.

When I lived in Illinois, we visited another of U.S. Grant’s homes, this one in the beautiful river community of Galena. It’s a small home by modern standards, very modest. But it was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1960 and turned over to the community of Galena to be maintained as a memorial. In spite of the fact that it was an old building, and in Councilman Brown’s view, probably a fire hazard, that’s what they did. They also added another building that houses exhibits about Grant and the history of his home.

Today, that little house draws thousands of visitors to Galena every year. They take the tour of the home and the exhibits, and then they spend a few hours and some of their money in the shops and restaurants in downtown Galena. It’s been an incredible boon to the local economy over the years, and there isn’t a person in town who’d say the property would have been put to better use as a Mc- Donald’s or a condominium development.

Nope, for that kind of thinking, you’ve got to go to Long Branch. Imagine what’s been squandered in Long Branch. If a teeny home the Grant family lived in for a little over two years can do so much cumulative good for a local economy, what kind of good could a restored summer White House have done?

If there had been a few forward-thinkers in Long Branch in the past (the Schneider administration isn’t responsible for all of the losses), they wouldn’t have to worry about building high-priced condominiums and a new arts district to improve the community economy. They’d have a world-class historical district that would have drawn millions of visitors, all of them itching to spend a few dollars in local shops, hotels and restaurants.

But that ship has certainly sailed. Now, there isn’t much left to save — and with the exception of Brian Unger, there apparently isn’t that much desire on the council to save it.

I might be wrong, and I’d love to be proven so. But my prediction is that even if the ordinance to create a Historic Preservation Advisory Commission in Long Branch was finally introduced this week, it will never be adopted and there’ll be no committee, at least no committee with any real teeth.

That’s just not the way the Schneider rubber-stamp council (with one notable exception) does business.

Gregory Bean is the former executive editor of Greater Media Newspapers. You can reach him at gbean@gmnews.com.