Open space and waterfront preservation have been at the forefront of political discussions and the future of Atlantic Highlands for the past 35 years. For 16 years as Councilman and Mayor, I was involved in many issues but none as lasting or gratifying as preserving open space and our waterfront. As a 30-year Monmouth County Park Commissioner, I have been involved in the preservation of thousands of acres. Helping keep Monmouth and Atlantic Highlands green and our waterfronts accessible has been a mission of mine and many others. It takes vision, determination, perseverance, creativity, the support of the public and political will. To succeed we need to be bold, proactive and take initiative. We have to fight for what we believe in!
This is why I am asking residents to give Loretta Gluckstein, Stephen Boracchia and Brian Boms a chance to take Atlantic Highlands back to policies that actively pursue open space and waterfront preservation initiatives.
I read former Democrat Borough Attorney Janice Davis-Miller’s October 31, 2019, letter defending the Democrat’s decision to “remain neutral and not take any steps to interfere in the McConnell contract”. This sounds like the same advice Attorney Davis-Miller must have given to Mayor Donoghue in 2004-2006 when Hovnanian won a major “restraint of land decision from COAH” against Atlantic Highlands effectively barring the borough from preserving any portion of the waterfront McConnell or Guiliani tract.
In a flashback, it was the same do-nothing tactic utilized by a past Democrat majority governing body who didn’t want to interfere with former Democrat Mayor Jim Snyder’s plans to build hundreds of units on a 13-acre parcel in Atlantic Highlands known as Popamora Point Beach. It is a county park today largely due to local and county Republicans fighting the good fight and having a plan the public embraced. We did not surrender our beachfront to a developer.
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In 1987, Republicans offered a unique platform of sensible development, preservation of open space, more parks and waterfront access. Along with many other like-minded residents of all parties who were fed up with overdevelopment plans, I helped spearhead that platform which has been largely credited to the election of Mayor Bob Schoeffling, Councilmen Waldron Smith and myself. The election of open space advocates forever changed the future of Atlantic Highlands for the better.
Within a short time of being in office, Mayor Bob and I were sued by developers – who enlisted local Democrat witnesses – who claimed our open space campaign promises were a conflict and we shouldn’t be able to sit on the Planning Board. There were those in town who wanted us to give up the expensive legal fight but Mayor Bob and the Republican leadership would have none of it.
The Republicans won on appeal and as they say, the rest is history. Political will and leadership prevailed. For the next 10 years (it takes time) we gained control of the town budget, the boards and commissions. Here is what we did:
- Dedicated Center Avenue land to open space. A previous administration had targeted the town owned property which was an ad hoc construction dump for a dredge pit and townhouses.
- Dedicated the waterfront railroad right -of-way to open space thwarting the Democrat plan to build a road there. Today this is the active and scenic hike and bike waterfront trail.
- Made a long-term deal with the Catamaran Club to move to the new Center Avenue Park and pay rent. The beach was replenished. This private-public partnership brought in rent funds to the town, added new beach for the public and property cleanup and beach maintenance by the Cat Club.
- Worked with private citizens to fight the Popamora Point Beach hi-rise plan while successfully lobbying the Monmouth County Freeholders to buy the property for the park.
- An idea for Lenape Woods to preserve open space and protect the town borders was brewing.
The Birth of Lenape Woods
For the next few years, the town was clearly at a crossroads regarding open space. The deck was somewhat stacked against our little town; the current 25-acre entrance to Lenape Woods was under contract to Hovnanian, Thousand Oaks was attempting a major expansion right up the foot of East Highland Avenue and the old 25-acre Clearwater site was being planned for more commercial space than all of First Avenue plus hundreds of residential units dubbed “Sudden City”.
Fighting the big developers on multiple fronts, legal fees exploded and many on the Atlantic Highlands’ governing body started to get cold feet. Facing such daunting odds, I give Mayor Bob much credit for his patience which was needed to hold the very-mixed governing body together. We credit Kathy Creutzburg and Paul Boyd who were incredible at planning, raising money and keeping the public active and motivated.
Atlantic Highlands got a big break when the Hesse family agreed to sell 20 acres and donate 5 acres to Atlantic Highlands. These acres go from the entrance of Lenape Woods on Ocean Boulevard to Route 36. Then our attorney tracked down the owner of 13 acres off East Highland Avenue who was negotiating with Thousand Oaks. Atlantic Highlands made a better offer. Atlantic Highlands began picking up parcel by parcel along our Middletown border (almost all properties in Middletown). Then in a stunning victory for open space, Atlantic Highlands and Middletown reached a compromise on Conifer and Clearwater Fields eliminating Sudden City and resulting in 21 acres of open space and ball fields paid for by Middletown. We fought hard, often in court, ensuring that Lenape Woods became the park we know today.
Just a word about former Mayor Fred Rast when he served as a councilman while I was the Mayor. Councilman Rast voted for open space acquisitions to protect the charm of the community and to preserve the woods he spent so much time in as a youngster. He often talked about how he and his friends would walk and play and find turtles and frogs along the railroad tracks where the bike trail is today. He wanted to save the woods where children could sleigh ride and scouts could camp. In his campaign for Mayor, he pledged to restore the deteriorating First Avenue with mixed-use residential plans. He kept that promise even though rebuilding after Superstorm Sandy became the priority of Mayor Rast and the entire Council.
At around the same time Atlantic Highlands was preserving Lenape Woods, the waterfront was heating up with developers nosing around. There were two parcels in play, McConnell and Giuliani. The asking price of the McConnell property was between $4 and $5 million. McConnell announced that Hovnanian had a contract on the property. The Giuliani family was seeking under $2 million for their property.
Due to the cleanup requirements and cost of McConnell, the town focused on the Giuliani property adjacent to the harbor. Charlie Hesse and Jack Westlake had landed a New Jersey State grant of $2 million for the town for reconstruction of the ferry pier and terminal. The general framework of the deal included a ferry terminal, some shops continuing First Avenue, winter boat storage, a public beach and town pool.
Democrats running for office opposed rebuilding the ferry pier and terminal without another traffic study and wrote letters to the Governor opposing the grant. The political signs that year by the Democrats read “No harbor expansion without a public referendum”. The Democrats prevailed and Mayor Donoghue was sworn into office. Any thought of acquiring the Giuliani property died.
- Negotiations between the harbor and the Giuliani family became strained and Hovnanian swooped in with a contract on Giuliani. Hovnanian offered to negotiate but put out a massive development concept plan. The town rejected those plans and offers to negotiate.
- With control of both McConnell and Giuliani tracts, Hovnanian sued the town and won a “Restraint of Land” judgement from the Council on Affordable Housing. This outrageous ruling made it illegal for Atlantic Highlands to preserve any portion of either property. Even more absurd is the Restraint of Land ruling remained unchallenged for 13 years – long after Hovnanian was gone.
- In 2017 prior to recent developers coming forward on McConnell, Monmouth Conservation Foundation offered assistance to help preserve the tract. MCF discovered the Restraint of Land on McConnell was still in place.
- In early 2018, the McConnell developer offered to work with the town on cluster housing and preserve open space in a plan called a “single family overlay” which allows houses on smaller lots with the idea of preserving open space plus offsite improvements; in this project, improvements to the wet soccer field. Without an alternative plan, Mayor LeGrice rejected this negotiation. The current development was submitted to the Planning Board and was approved.
- The current Mayor made no moves to preserve – at the very least – the 1.5 acre western portion of McConnell currently utilized by the Catamaran Club for parking and boat storage. This would have been so simple.
The difference between the Democrat and Republican administrations is stark. If you care about open space, vote Gluckstein, Boracchia and Boms on Tuesday November 5th.
Atlantic Highlands, NJ