The Zoner Speaks

As you may know, I serve on the Board of Zoning Adjustment for the City of Lambertville. I did this as an alternate some twenty-five or thirty years ago, until it became more than I could manage with a full-time job and a small child. I re-upped five years or so ago when it appeared that I was needed. We are seven, not counting the alternates. Five votes are needed to grant a variance. We serve without pay, reviewing the submissions of those needing a variance, showing up for monthly hearings, doing the best we can for the people of the city.

Ordinarily the hearings are without drama. News reporters don't even show up to cover them. Every buildable square inch of the town has already been developed, and who cares, after all, if Joe Citizen needs a variance to put an apartment for his mother-in-law over the garage? (An extremely hypothetical example, by the way. Most homes in Lambertville have no off-street parking, still less a garage.)

But every now and then something important comes up. Someone seeks to build on the hillside, for example, which is not buildable, and is protected by the city's steep slope ordinance. To grant a variance in such cases would worsen the already bad storm water runoff problems up there, in the worst case sending a mudslide onto Route 29.

Or someone comes into town with a marvelous plan for turning the old Baptist Church into an exciting music venue where food and alcohol are served.

Since this plan sorely impacts the already difficult parking situation, and since it threatens to draw a crowd not normally seen on this side of the river (or this side of Bourbon Street during Mardi Gras, in the minds of some), passions are running high among the locals. Middle-class people live on the street behind the Baptist Church. The rumors alone are said to be affecting property values there.

Meanwhile the Lambertville Music Hall (a non-profit) has been pouring money into the church building for months now. Repairs and renovation were badly needed. The church looks good.

Members of the Zoning Board have been snowed under with letters begging us to turn their application down, and not just from immediate neighbors and competing restaurateurs. The mayor said at the last city council meeting that the Zoning Board of Adjustment alone was in charge of accepting or rejecting the Music Hall's application, and was free to ignore all the mail.

There are people in town who like the whole idea. Art. Music. What's not to like?

Last week the application came before the board. Actually it was a continuation of the application, which first came before the board last month. Over a hundred members of the public turned out in weather so bad that the board chairman opened the meeting by warning us that it might get worse. We should think, he said, about evacuating safely. But a hundred dripping wet, enraged people weren't going anywhere.

I took my seat on the dais with the rest of the Board, but only long enough to answer the roll call. Since my house is within two hundred yards of one of the parking lots the Music Hall proposed to use, I was forced under the law to recuse myself from the proceedings. So also was another board member, who lives out behind the church. And so was a third member. He had just discovered that he was involved in a business arrangement with one of the principals.

I went to the back of the room, where my facial expressions could not be seen by the other board members and possibly influence their decision. They told us to do that in Zoning Board school if we ever had to recuse ourselves. The crowd fell silent.

The lawyer for the Music Hall appeared nervous. He challenged the credentials of one of the members, who had been appointed and sworn in before the last meeting but had missed that meeting, getting up to speed by listening to the four-hour tape. The lawyer wanted him sworn in publicly and then forced to listen to the four-hour tape again. Our lawyer, the lawyer for the board, pointed out that this was unreasonable. I must explain that the reason we seemed so short-handed was that our chairman died suddenly two months ago and another member moved out of town and was thus unable to serve. And then there were the three of us who had to recuse ourselves.

Seeing that there were, in fact, enough people on the board to legally rule on the application, the Music Hall lawyer asked for five minutes to confer with his clients. They went out in the hall while the people in the room began talking and growling among themselves. When he came back he said that they were unwilling to go forward with the application with so few board members and asked for a postponement until next month. This request was granted. But it came from him, not from the board, and only after an attempt to disqualify one of the members and reduce the board still further.

Newspaper coverage of the brouhaha has been vague and inaccurate. The headline on the front page of the Beacon read, "Zoners unable to hold music hall hearings." Zoners. We're Zoners. I sort of like that. It sounds vaguely sinful. Maybe I'll have tee shirts made.

One of the members of the public asked that the next meeting be held in a larger venue, so that more than a hundred people could attend. The Music Hall offered the church for the meeting, but their offer was met with what I can only describe as a roar of rage from the public. The board chairman made a few calls, without success. The announcement of the next location was postponed. The meeting was adjourned, and we all went back out in the pouring rain.

A few days ago the board secretary emailed all of us Zoners the information that the Music Hall's architect had let her know that they were withdrawing their application. I thought this was interesting news, and I went to the Lambertville Facebook site and posted it, so that interested members of the public might know. It isn't as if they would read about it in the papers anytime soon. Or anyway not the real story, whatever that is.

It was like dropping a piece of meat in the piranha tank. So many with opinions, so few with understanding of the issues. People get really nasty sometimes when they think they're talking to strangers. Social media reminds me of the way some folks drive their cars. If you can't see people's faces it's okay to honk at them and give them the finger.

Anyway, without honking or giving the finger, I'll sign off for now, promising to keep you posted on what happens next, whether our little town collapses into a sinkhole of urban decay for lack of an exciting music venue in the middle of town or suffers a fatal influx of cars and drunken rock fans, putting an end to life as we know it. The Music Hall people may have withdrawn their application but they are still doing major landscaping in the church's back yard, located in the R2 zone. (That's residential.)

Kate Gallison