AVALON - The essence of the proposal before the Avalon Planning Board Jan. 12 was a request by Avalon developer and businessman Tim Kerr to demolish the existing pizza parlor, arcade and ice cream shop now on the site, replacing it with a new, two-story restaurant and catering-event venue.
The ice cream shop would be retained at one corner of the proposed new building.
The proposal was considered at a December board meeting, at which several members of the public spoke out against it. The hearing was continued to the January meeting to provide a period when the developer might work out changes that addressed some of the public's objections.
The extra time allowed word to spread and interest in the proposal to swell.
At midnight, over six hours after the meeting began, a weary board, with an attentive 150 people still virtually connected, voted "no" on the D-2 variance motion formulated by the board’s attorney, Paul Baldini.
The public's interest in the hearing was such that the teleconferencing system used by the borough for virtual access was quickly overwhelmed within minutes of the scheduled 6 p.m. meeting time.
Eventually, over 280 individuals were connected to the meeting via the conferencing system.Earlier, social media was exploding with statements of frustration from members of the public who were calling and finding the system full.
The borough scrambled to increase capacity, and individuals on second and third attempts managed to get through and join the meeting. By then, the meeting had begun, and business was continually interrupted by callers yelling to a spouse or friend, “I just got in,” or joining the meeting with a cautious, “hello, hello," at 6:45 p.m.
Even as late as 7:40 p.m., people could be heard jubilantly yelling, “We just got in.”
Each new batch of public connections also brought with it unmuted lines, interrupting the meeting further with a barking dog, a remote spousal conversation, or just general background noise. Board chair Jamie McDermott spent much of the first hour of the meeting pleading with the remotely connected public to mute their phones.
With as many members of the public as the pandemic restrictions would allow in the meeting room, and over 280 people on the conference call, many chose to speak, and the meeting was not adjourned until 12:06 a.m., over six hours after it began.
Public concern ranged broadly, but a certain focus emerged on issues of public safety, sanitation, noise, the project’s congruence with the newly completed Surf Side Park and parking.
As testimony was being taken, it became clear that the proposed catering venue, largely discussed in terms of it being a venue for weddings, would be the largest on the island, in terms of event capacity. It would be larger than that of The Reeds, in Stone Harbor, and the Windrift, at the border of the island’s two communities.
Yet, the developer relied on the municipal parking lot, offering no additional parking spaces.
No formal sanitation plans or traffic studies were offered. One member of the public even conjured images of rats in the parking lot, as a consequence of a poor sanitation plan, an image few would expect at a meeting of a public body in Avalon.
The proximity to the newly completed Surf Side Park was an issue speakers repeatedly cited. A venue where people would be at events and imbibing alcohol was inconsistent with a playground area in a park the borough had just invested significant funds to build.
Images conjured were, once again, frightening – drunks urinating on nearby lawns or outdoor show facilities, restaurant and event patrons using the public bathroom facilities at the park, rather than waiting for the restaurant’s restroom to free up, inebriated drivers posing a safety threat to the neighborhood.
The developer’s case was not helped by the almost total lack of operating details provided during testimony. As one member of the public summarized it during public comment, many of the questions meant to elicit operational details were responded to with “I think, I believe or, most often, I don’t know.”
The overwhelming number of those from the public who elected to speak opposed the project. A handful of speakers supported the project.
One woman supporter argued that the project had more support than was apparent because many people did not wait for an opportunity to speak. If so, that was not the case with the opposition, many of whom did not get an opportunity to voice their opinions until they had been holding a phone to their ear for at least five of the meeting's six hours.
Avalon, they all agreed, is a "quiet town," a “family town.” It should remain true to its character. The plans depict a “beautiful structure,” one many said they would love to patronize, but one that was out of place on the borough boardwalk next to the town’s “sacred dunes.”
To contact Vince Conti, email email@example.com.