Brick Township’s zoning board on Wednesday dealt a blow to a small army of attorneys assembled by the Mantoloking municipal government and Save Barnegat Bay, who had apparently collaborated to oppose the construction of a bayfront restaurant and banquet hall.
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The attorneys, Ron Gasiorowski and Edward Liston – noted attorneys for objecting parties who were representing the borough of Mantoloking – as well as Michele R. Donato, representing Save Barnegat Bay, based in Mantoloking, and the town’s borough attorney, Jean L. Cipriani, all appeared as objectors. All but Cipriani spoke. The goal of the legal team was to convince the board that because the proposed facility includes space for both a restaurant and banquet facility, the project requires a use variance. When a project requires a use variance, the legal standard for a board to grant it becomes more stringent (as opposed to a simple variance for building height) and a supermajority of board members must vote in favor of approval.
The attorneys were unsuccessful, with members of Brick’s Board of Adjustment voting unanimously to go along with the advice of the township’s own planning and zoning employees who testified at a hearing that no use variance is required simply because the facility may be used for banquets in addition to that of a traditional restaurant.
Mantoloking’s municipal government is objecting to the project over concerns regarding noise carrying across the bay, lights and the potential to block sunset views. Save Barnegat Bay is opposing the project since it would create additional development along the watershed (though Jackson hinted that the organization receives funding from Mantoloking residents, including members of the private Mantoloking Yacht Club). Mantoloking residents packed the chamber; only a few Brick residents were present. No members of the public spoke.
Brick’s zoning ordinance – except where it covers hotels – does not mention banquet facilities at all. In the past, Township Planner Tara Paxton testified, officials never delineated between the two uses, classifying each as a restaurant. Several businesses currently operate as dual restaurants and banquet halls in town, including Beacon 70, River Rock and Villa Vittoria, said John Jackson, representing the would-be owner of the proposed 82-foot-high, three-story restaurant at Barnegat Bay Marina, at the foot of the Mantoloking Bridge.
“My opinion is that a [use variance] is not necessary and a banquet facility is part of the restaurant functionality,” Paxton testified.
“Restaurants are used as banquet facilities and banquet facilities are used as restaurants,” added Zoning Official Christopher Romano. “I felt it was a permitted use in the zone.”
Dinato, however, argued that a case adjudicated by the state Superior Court Appellate Division did indicate a difference between a restaurant and banquet facility, though that case largely took into account the zoning ordinances of Spring Lake in Monmouth County, in a controversy over the former Sandpiper restaurant there.
“Here you have a restaurant, then you have three floors of a building that are separate and distinctly used as a banquet facility,” said Dinato. “That’s where the line is drawn.”
Testimony, at times, became heated. There were frequent interruptions and – at certain points – parties were admonished for being disrespectful to witnesses.
“You’re trying to pin her down,” a visibly upset Board Chairman Harvey Langer told Gasiorowski as he peppered Paxton with questions.
“Of course I’m trying to pin her down!” he loudly shot back. “What’s wrong with that?”
Andrew Thomas, a planner hired by Mantoloking Borough’s legal team, testified that while Brick’s zoning ordinance is silent on banquet facilities, that does not necessarily mean they are allowed wherever restaurants are allowed.
“Nowhere in the Brick ordinance is a banquet facility subsumed into a restaurant,” Thomas said.
But it has been the practice in Brick for at least 35 years, dating back to the approval of Peterson’s Restaurant (now River Rock), which received approval to operate as a restaurant and banquet facility in 1983, Jackson said.
Langer scheduled the next hearing date for the project for the board’s Aug. 21 meeting. While it was not overtly stated, there is the potential that the objectors’ legal team could attempt to have the zoning board’s determination overturned in court.
“Then we’d be right back here again,” Liston said at one point during the proceedings, hinting at litigation.
But as it currently stands, the project will require only a variance for its height moving forward.
The project would create a 48,000 square feet of space for a restaurant and bar with dock-and-dine on the bay as well as three floors for banquets (though only one banquet would be hosted at once). The banquet portion would consist of a rooftop ceremonial venue, a cocktail room and a dining room.