Ship Bottom OK’s Hotel LBI Variances on Condition of Corrections

State Transportation Officials Still Need to Agree
By GINA G. SCALA | Apr 24, 2019

Ship Bottom — The Ship Bottom Land Use Board last week approved another series of variances for the owner of Baldwin Residence LLC, trading as Hotel LBI, with conditions that include the near-future redesign of a breakaway wall fronting Ninth Street. That work, along with removing the east-facing balconies at the back of the building, will be bonded as improvements to the site and performed after the summer season.

Bars are expected to be placed across the easterly balcony sliders inside guest suites so they’re not in use this summer. The balconies must be removed and railings installed in their place before Nov. 1. Redesigning the breakaway feature will take some time and require another appearance before the land use board.

The intent is to return the breakaway wall to be flush against the building, providing additional space on the sidewalks that are slated to be installed sooner rather than later. The sidewalks could be removed and reconfigured in the near future under the $312 million federally funded Causeway expansion and rehab project. The final phase of that project includes drainage and other improvements in Ship Bottom.

Chris Vernon, whose Mercer Management company owns and developed the site, also agreed to return some of the impervious paver areas to clam shells and recess fans to remove carbon monoxide from the underground garage. Currently, the fans face the hotel’s east property neighbor, who was concerned about the blowback impacting his customers and tenants. The two projects are expected to be completed before the hotel opens.

Additionally, Frank Little, borough engineer, said the roof line needs to be cut back.

Prior to the unanimous vote approving the variances, board members took the applicant’s professionals to task for not bringing any of the issues to their attention when they approved a salon, food truck, and tent for the site in the fall.

Tiffany Morrissey, a professional planner from Galloway Township, said the changes to the site were directly related to a change in the flood zone classification following Superstorm Sandy. She said the breakaway wall, which was a 4-foot retaining wall in the approved plans, was necessary because of the flood zone change. That, she testified, changed the configuration of the building.

“I think we all agree this should have been brought to the board’s attention,” Morrissey said. “It wasn’t our intention to not bring it (the issues). We’ve been back here more than once. We’re not trying to deceive. We’re not afraid to come back to the board.”

Stuart Snyder, attorney for the board, noted there has been a fair amount of criticism aimed at the board for approving the project.

“We’ve stood behind Mr. Vernon,” he said, “and this project. You’re here again looking for relief. Unbeknownst to us, these things happened … we’re not engineers. We rely on the testimony of professionals.”

Morrissey countered by saying the building was built within the same setbacks as what was approved and without increasing the number of rooms. In fact, the hotel has three fewer guest rooms because of the approval of the salon last fall, she said.

“I think people are upset that what they thought it would look like isn’t what they see,” Morrissey said, adding, “If the flood zone hadn’t changed there would have been more stone walls. The code, now, doesn’t permit that.”

Jeffrey Pack, the architect for the project, said meetings with the borough’s building departments took place in early 2016 and there was never a mention of a change in flood zones. After learning of it, the drawings were resubmitted to the borough in 2017, he testified.

“That’s what I am saying,” William Fenimore, an alternate member of the board, said. “You should have been back here in front of us (then) saying, ‘We made these changes.’ That’s where I am having an issue. You should have been here in 2017, not in 2019 a month away from opening day.”

JoAnne Tallon, board vice chair, questioned the decision to go from clam shells to pavers in certain areas on the property, which increased the site’s impervious coverage to 93.6 percent. It was approved at 80 percent, she said.

“Why would you exceed the impervious coverage?” she asked. “Again, you changed the site without coming back to the board. This is nowhere near what we approved. That is very upsetting.”

Morrissey, who testified for nearly 90 minutes, said she appreciated the comments and recognized that things were done that probably shouldn’t have been done, and their appearance before the board was to make things right.

While members of the board and some in the public were open to having things made right, some, like William Bouri, who owns the Dunkin’ Donuts property, was on the fence.

“At one point I had no concern,” Bouri testified, “but when it went from a 20-foot setback to zero and it was brought to my attention by tenants that it was disrupting parking and business …”

Bouri said as a business and property owner in the borough he wants the hotel to succeed, but he wasn’t pleased with construction workers using his property to work on the hotel.

“They destroyed the fence. It seems there is a history here of do whatever you want and ask for forgiveness,” he said during his testimony. He later declined to commit to an olive branch from the applicant to replace the damaged fence with landscaping.

Joe Mayo, who has owned the Re/Max building adjacent to the Dunkin’ Donuts property for 25 years, said the reason for the April 17 meeting was the applicant “was trying to take more than what was approved.”

“Twelve times – I counted – there was no intent to deceive the board,” he said of the professional testimony for the applicant. “It was either incompetency or deceit. Who made the mistake? I think he overstepped his bounds. It’s not up to the board to make sure he opens on time.”

Still, Raymond R. Ciccone, who owns the accounting firm across Ninth Street from the hotel property, argued it was important to get the hotel opened on time, and Jeffrey Michaelson, who owns an eight-unit building to the south of the hotel, said the Island now has a second landmark.

“The first is still the Lighthouse,” Michaelson said, adding Vernon is one of two “new guys” in town trying to make the Island better. The other, Brian Wainwright, manager of Wainwright Amusement, received approval from the board April 17 for a use variance to bring a family entertainment center to the former CVS site at the Causeway Circle, he said.

While the land use board approved the variances for the hotel, the applicant is still waiting on word from the state Department of Transportation about the Causeway encroachment at the front of the building. Part of the front entrance is on state-owned property.

“Are you going to close that off until you hear from the DOT?” Tallon asked.

Morrissey said they would do whatever is required by law, and Little, the borough engineer, said if the DOT doesn’t approve it or doesn’t respond, that entrance will have to be taken down completely, including the waterfalls.

In related news, the Ship Bottom Borough Council last night was expected to transfer a hotel/motel liquor license to Baldwin Residence LLC. Hotel LBI was the only hotel/motel in the borough to qualify for the license, which is permitted by state regulations for any hotel/motel with 100 rooms or more.

Comments (1)
Posted by: Jean D Ragone | May 02, 2019 08:39

This is so sad to read. Initially I welcomed Hotel LBI. Having seen the renderings many years ago, I thought it would be a beautiful addition. However as construction commenced I was surprised at the setbacks. After reading this article, I am disappointed to see how many violations need to be addressed.

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