By John Burton
RED BANK — The Planning Board has a mystery it would like to unravel.
The mystery at hand involves who is paying for the attorney and professional planner representing an objector to the proposal for a Hampton Hotel that is currently before the planning board.
At the latest hearing on the application last Monday evening, Ron Gasiorowski, the attorney ostensibly representing a borough resident opposed to the project, acknowledged to the board that there is another party involved in challenging the project and that party is actually paying the legal fees.
Gasiorowski, however, emphatically refused to identify who that party is.
“It happens all the time, especially with environmental cases,” where organizations come forward and support a party in a legal proceeding, Gasiorowski told the board. His position was that the identity of the unknown opposing party is protected under client-attorney privilege.
Martin A. McGann Jr., the lawyer representing the developer seeking to construct the hotel, told the board that he had right to know who was behind the challenge the proposal and speculated that it could be a competitor seeking to prevent competition.
“My question is who is the entity?” asked Mayor Pasquale Menna, a planning board member, wondering out load if it might be an environmental or business entity who was footing the bill.
“The board has a right to know who are your clients,” board attorney Michael Leckstein told Gasiorowski.
“I’m not going to respond to that,” Gasiorowski told him.
“If a competitor is funding his case, don’t you think that’s germane?” McGann asked the board. “I think we can all draw our own conclusions.”
For board members and their attorney, the issue at hand boils down to whether those opposing the project have appropriate legal standing and how much weight should the board should give the opponents’ argument, board members explained following the hearing.
Leckstein’s legal opinion was that the known objector, Steven Mitchell, Prospect Avenue, has standing to bring his objection and pursue his complaint filed in state Superior Court.
For Board Vice Chairman Daniel Mancuso, the identity of the objector or objectors is a valid consideration in the board’s deliberations. “If it’s a neighbor next door it mean’s a lot,” possibly more than if it is an outside business competitor, Mancuso said afterwards. Mancuso added, “Never in my 17 years on the board was it unclear as to who all their clients were.”
Leckstein said that in his experience representing land use boards, “I’ve never seen these issues.”
“It might be a little old lady who is concerned about her view of the river,” he added. “I’m not saying that it is, but it could be.”
Gasiorowski’s identified client, Mitchell, is an engineer currently working in Brooklyn. He has raised concerns about this project since it first appeared before the zoning board arguing that the proposed hotel is too large given that the property is adjacent to a residential neighborhood, and raised concerns about contaminants on the site, which formerly held a gas station.
The property has been vacant and the site has undergone remediation.
The zoning board determined there was some ambiguous language in the zoning ordinance regarding the area where the hotel proposed but agreed that the site could not be considered residential.
The zoning board determined that the planning board should hear the proposal.
The planning board and borough council agreed, with the council seeking to clarify the zoning ordinance. But Mitchell and his attorney, in their legal filings to the Superior Court, argued that the matter rightly belongs before the zoning board because the applicants should be required to obtain a use variance for a non-permitted use in the zone.
The applicant, Rbank Capital, LLC, is seeking to construct a six-story, 76-room Hampton Inn on the property located at the Highway 35 South and Rector Place intersection at borough’s northern entrance, overlooking the Swimming River and in fairly immediate proximity of the borough’s other two hotels, the Molly Pitcher Inn and the Oyster Point Hotel. And Mancuso said, “This is a significant application for the borough of Red Bank.”