A vote on whether to move forward with a plan to modify a redevelopment agreement that would pare down the 10-story “twin towers” project in the downtown sector with a six-story complex comprising the same number of units turned out largely as expected last week, with two members of the governing body opposing the plan – even proposing the project be stopped outright – with the majority bloc of council members supporting its advancement.
The vote came just over a month after voters, with the issue of downtown redevelopment central to the campaign, resoundingly rejected the majority bloc of the all-Republican council, making Councilman Dan Rodrick and his running mates the immediate front-runners to win control of the mayor’s office and governing body, respectively, in November’s general election. Rodrick and Councilman Justin Lamb, another opponent of the large mixed-use complex proposed at the site of a former derelict motel on the waterfront, argued that an agreement with the assigned redeveloper, Capodagli Group, had already expired and officials were under no obligation to offer them an extension to move forward with the six-story plan.
Ultimately, after the township’s redevelopment attorney hinted that litigation could result from canceling the project altogether and going back to the drawing board, the council voted 5-2 to allow the six-story project to move forward with a planning board hearing. Capodagli’s original plan for the site – then ten story towers – has already received planning board approval, but because formal redevelopment agreements require numerous benchmarks and deadlines to be met, Rodrick and Lamb questioned whether the agreement was even still in force. They said the agreement expired in May without Capodagli having filed sufficient paperwork proving the major project was backed with sufficient financing.
The attorney, Frances Ciesla McManimon, told council members that there is a process for filing a notice of default if a deadline is not met by a redeveloper. The redeveloper then has 45 days to correct the issue.
“If the redeveloper makes a good faith effort to comply, it goes to 180 days,” she said.
Asked about the township’s legal exposure if they were to, indeed, file a notice of default and call off the project: “There would be potential legal exposure as there would be when you’re violating any contract,” McManimon said.
The response drew backlash from Rodrick.
“It expired in May and now we hope he has financing,” Rodrick said. “He could be in default and you’re here trying to extend this agreement. We should know whether or not this redeveloper is in default. I don’t think it’s a big ask to discuss this with legal counsel or to share more with the public.”
Rodrick and Lamb twice made motions, which were seconded, to table the extension of the redevelopment agreement, but on each occasion they were defeated in a 5-2 vote.
Lamb, for his part, questioned why the public first became aware of the switch from 10-story towers to a six-story complex after photographs taken at a campaign fundraiser for current mayor Maurice “Mo” Hill were posted online. The fundraiser was being held at the home of attorney Robert C. Shea, of R.C. Shea and Associates, a backer of Hill’s campaign whose firm represents the redeveloper.
“I’d like to know who approached who,” Lamb said, regarding whether Capodagli proposed the changes or if the administration requested a height reduction due to what could have been perceived as the unpopularity of the project. “That’s a major fact. There are just too many questions unanswered.”
The council majority bloc, after turning down the motions to hold off on modifying the redevelopment agreement, then voted in favor of its modification to allow the six-story variant to move forward. Its next stop will be before the planning board, where it will be subject to a public hearing.
“It’s been 30 years in the making,” said Council President Matthew Lotano. “This project was approved at 10 stories, it has been reduced to six stories, which I believe would be more palatable to people.”
“I’ve known downtown Toms River since the early ‘60s,” said Councilman David Ciccozzi. “I’ve seen everything move, leave – the movie theaters, the clothing stores, the supermarkets. It was a very slow death. Is this project 100 percent? Absolutely not, but downtown needs it desperately.”
At issue has been the size of the project itself – 285 units ranging from studio apartments to two bedroom units – tax breaks for Capodagli, as well as the conveyance of the former Red Carpet Inn motel site for $1 after the township purchased it for $3.3 million.
Officials have previously said the complex will maintain the same number of units for which it had been approved earlier, but the buildings will be re-shaped to fit the units on six floors instead of 10. Some amenities, such as a pool, will be removed as part of the reconfiguration, however publicly-accessible portions will remain.
Proponents of the project have argued that Capodagli would invest more than $3.3 million into the township’s waterfront, including a public walking path along the water, a state-of-the-art amphitheater and a pedestrian-friendly outdoor commercial walk that would include shops and restaurants. Ciccozzi, in particular, said development in the downtown area of Toms River wold help attract more businesses and keep the downtown area lively after the court complex and other government offices close for the day. He also touted the fact that Community Medical Center would be beginning a medical residency program for students, and the apartment complex’s developer is seeking partnerships with the hospital to rent units to prospective physicians, bringing top-notch doctors to the area.
Some residents at the meeting said regardless of the personal views of those on council, a town hall-style meeting should be held, especially after what many see as an anti-development sentiment having been proven by the recent GOP primary election.
“I might like it, I might not like it, but I think the offer should be made to the people in the town to let them discuss their feelings about this major change in design,” said resident Irene Watson. “Let’s get this room filled with a few hundred people and see what the residents want.”
Rodrick and Hill, both interviewed by Shorebeat about their stance on the matter, expectedly had opposing views. Hill said the 10-story project had already been approved by the planning board, and the six-story application would represent a transparent process where residents could attend the meetings, examine witnesses and have their say during a public comment session.
Rodrick, the front-runner to replace Hill as mayor following the primary result, said he would like to see redevelopment of the waterfront scaled back significantly, with the area focused on passive recreational opportunities such as kayak launches and a more accessible layout that would recognize the area’s historical status as a fishing and boating village.
No date has been set for the hearing at which the six-story proposal will be considered.