Several weeks ago, the debate regarding the future of West End’s zoning ordinances were documented in this column: the Long Branch City Council approved an overlay design that would allow Chabad, a religious organization, to construct a multiple-level house of worship (with retail space on the ground level) on the parcel currently occupied by a long-vacant movie theater and zoned for commercial properties. Some locals, concerned about what impact such sweeping construction would have on the neighborhood’s economy, brought their concerns before the municipal legislative body, arguing that parking, taxes, and existing businesses could be adversely impacted. How, they argued, could Chabad be trusted to operate within the confines of this new ordinance, specially crafted for their benefit, when they have been operating in direct violation of the existing ordinance for years? Throughout the discussion, the Mayor and Council remained steadfast in their support for the overlay, un-phased by criticism that the reform seemed to be designed specifically to stave off a lawsuit with Chabad.
Now, a group of locals have potentially thrown a wedge into that plan, presenting a proposal to the City Council and Monmouth County Freeholders that would turn the abandoned theater into public space, expanding the existing West End Park to encompass the adjacent parcel. Of course, proponents of the overlay design are unwilling to embrace this new proposal. Mayor Adam Schneider,who was quoted in Word on the Shore as saying the overlay would allow West End to start “moving again” (which begs the question: does this bustling little neighborhood need to get “moving,” because it certainly seems to be doing fine already, especially when juxtaposed against Broadway?) dismissing the new plan, arguing that it would undo ten years of progress.
Regardless, the park proposal was raised by local activist Vincent Lepore at the last City Council meeting: “The request, which has already been filed with the Freeholders, requesting the County to unilaterally come in and do the job, independent of the municipal and independent of the Open Space Program. Finally, after thirty years, we can get the County to get rid of a derelict building that has lowered the quality of life in the West End! This is the best plan for the West End to date; I challenge anyone to question it, and I challenge anyone to say it’s flawed.”
If the owner of the abandoned theater refuses the offer to sell, the County government could theoretically eminent domain the property at fair market value, a notion the City Council didn’t seem particularly comfortable with. How interesting that Long Branch seems unwilling to consider eminent domain for its legitimately intended purpose: to purchase an undoubtedly blighted property at fair market value, for the common good (in this case, a free park for all residents and visitors to enjoy). A mere decade ago, City Hall was apt to abuse that same policy, removing working classic families from undervalued homes to make way for private construction, condominiums, and retail space.
Why the sudden change of heart? Well, only two elected officials, the Mayor and a Councilwoman, were in office during the eminent domain controversy, so perhaps they are hesitant to reopen old wounds. There likely wouldn’t be a public outcry against using eminent domain in a responsible manner, for its intended purpose; it was the abuse of this policy, the seizing of non-blighted homes for the profit of private developers that left the City government with a severe black eye during that debacle, rendering it a nationally-recognized case study in how not to behave in regards to property rights.
Of course, that is the past. What matters now is the future: West End could be much greener if the plan advocated by Mr. Lepore gains traction among the County Freeholders. So, Long Branch residents and visitors, what do you think is the best plan for West End? The overlay or the public park? Should the County come in and fix a problem that has festered for three decades along Ocean Avenue, or should the City be trusted to get the act together?