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STONE HARBOR - Stone Harbor Borough Council has been discussing the potential purchase of Smuggler's Cove, an iconic spot boasting one of the borough’s oldest structures and housing a marine gas station, a bait shop and a history of service to anglers whether novices or veterans.

Following a series of closed sessions, the discussions, and the disagreements, were revealed at the Sept. 3 council meeting.

Should the borough get involved in owning property on which a lessee would run a for-profit business? Was Smuggler's Cove a unique piece of borough history that deserved civic preservation instead of almost certain demolition?

Should the borough consider selling a nearby piece of municipal property as a way to lower any financial burden from the potential purchase of the cove? What would be the costs of necessary repairs and alterations to the property?

There was public comment for and against any borough purchase. What was also apparent was engagement. Some people care about the decision, some passionately.

One piece of information brought up at that meeting was the fact that the Stone Harbor Property Owners Association (SHPOA) surveyed its members on the issue, with 51% opposing any borough purchase. The response rate for the survey was 65%.

Since that survey in 2018, the expected, but still uncertain, price of the property lowered. Engineering estimates are also available on property modifications.

Mayor Judith Davies-Dunhour thought it useful to return to SHPOA with new information. She did so Sept. 14.

The borough’s Planning Board met. According to Davies-Dunhour and Council member Charles Krafczek, who sit with the Planning Board, that entity asked for more information and presentations on the issue before the borough committed to a decision.

Council's regular business meeting Sept. 17 began with a report from the Coastal Research Center on the condition of the beaches. It moved on to consider a bond anticipation notes sale, accepting a donated pediatric beach chair, awards for bike lane improvements and necessary work on borough-owned bulkheads, and correcting, downward, the bid amount for the purchase of police radios.

When Davies-Dunhour began to ask for a motion to pay the bills, Council President Joselyn Rich said she had a motion to make. The recording of the meeting caught Davies-Dunhour’s surprise in the form of an “Oh.”

Rich’s motion was that the borough not purchase Smuggler's Cove. It was immediately seconded by Mantura Gallagher.

At least three members of council appeared prepared for the motion and ready to support it. The motion was made, and seconded without comment, giving it two supporters.

Arguments for why the motion should be supported came from the body’s newest member, Frank Dallahan, who was appointed to his seat following the resignation of Robert Levins for health reasons. 

Dallahan reminded council members that “a year ago, when I was just a citizen, I said this was a crazy idea.” He argued that the borough should not be a landlord to a private concern.

He added that the money, the expected cost being $5 to $7 million, could be better used to invest in the borough’s marina, which could be used to offer the same services to the public as Smuggler's Cove.

Raymond Parzych and Krafczek said they did not support any decision now, arguing that many pieces of information were still being worked on, including, inserted Davies-Dunhour, a final price.

For Davies-Dunhour, the argument went deeper. She repeatedly criticized the motion on the grounds that the issue was not on the public agenda. “People who may have wanted to speak for or against any borough action have been deprived of a chance to do so,” she said.

Parzych, Krafczek, and Davies-Dunhour called any decision on Smuggler's Cove an important one for the borough, one that required transparent vetting with the public.

Davies-Dunhour called Rich’s motion an ambush on members of the governing body.

“This was done without notice to the public and without notice to several people who sit on this council,” Davies-Dunhour said. She called it a disservice to the public.

At one point, Rich attempted to remind Davies-Dunhour that there was a motion on the floor with a second. “I know there is,” was Davies-Dunhour’s reply.

Davies-Dunhour then reminded Rich that the mayor runs the meeting. “I will call for a vote on the motion, but I am still in discussion,” she added.

Davies-Dunhour then reminded council that an agenda session is held before every regular meeting of the governing body. “The purpose of that meeting is to set an agenda so it can be published for the public,” she said.

She pointed to the fact that Rich, as council president, is part of the agenda-setting session. “You never asked to put this on the agenda,” she said.

Davies-Dunhour accused Rich of impropriety and intentionally trying to “ambush your colleagues and the taxpayers.”

Rich did not respond directly to the agenda issue. She said the mayor had acted improperly by speaking in public about the potential sale of borough property to finance the purchase, but she never articulated a reason why she did not use her role as council president to have the item placed on the agenda.

She also did not publicly offer a reason for why some members of council and the mayor were not informed in advance of the meeting that she intended to make her motion.

As the discussion progressed, it became clear that Reese Moore was the potential swing vote.

While past discussion on the issue showed that Moore did not favor the purchase, the question was whether he would support a surprise motion that had not been part of the public agenda.

When Parzych argued that, “It is not going to cost us anything to wait,” or when Krafczek called any vote on the motion “premature,” the person who could potentially be influenced by those arguments was Moore.

If the vote on the motion came up 3-to-3, Davies-Dunhour could have exercised her right to break a tie and the motion would have failed. Failure would have meant that the discussions on the potential purchase would go forward.

When the vote was taken, the motion carried 4-to-2, with Moore among the majority.

Davies-Dunhour apologized to the public for what she continued to call an inappropriate action.

During public comment, Bernadette Parzych, wife of the council member, accused those who voted for the motion of knowing "the tide was turning” and rushing the vote to avoid strong public support for the purchase.

Two other speakers spoke against the action taken to abandon any potential purchase on the grounds that the public had not been sufficiently involved.

To contact Vince Conti, email vconti@cmcherald.com.

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