At the Hoboken City Council meeting on Wednesday, Jan. 4, the body reorganized its members and saw debate over Zoning Board appointments by the council.
In the last two years, some members of the public have complained about a lack of diversity in board appointments in Hoboken, particularly at the Zoning Board, as very few minorities were on the seven-member board, and there were no renters in a city full of thousands of tenants. The Zoning Board hears requests from property owners to deviate from zoning guidelines when building or altering development projects.
At Wednesday’s meeting, the City Council unanimously reappointed Diane Fitzmeyer-Murphy to serve as one of the seven volunteer commissioners, for a new four-year term.
Then, they debated the candidates for the second available commissioner’s seat. The two applicants for the seat were Antonio Grana, the incumbent, and Dan Weaver, who has been the first alternate to the board for the past year.
Before the meeting, rumor had it that the council majority was planning to demote Grana to an alternate seat – a rumor that ultimately proved true. But at the meeting, some of the council members did not support this.
First Ward Councilman Michael DeFusco, who represents the south waterfront area, said he supported the reappointment of Grana to his regular seat.
“I find it curious, having spoken to a number of people on the council, that no one could say why we are demoting Commissioner Grana,” DeFusco said.
DeFusco hinted in a follow up interview that some of Grana’s past votes didn’t sit well with the council majority, and that they wanted someone more conservative about development. DeFusco disagreed with the assessment.
“My definition of a good commissioner is somebody who’s tough, but fair,” DeFusco said. “To support somebody simply because they’re more likely to vote ‘no’ on a zoning variance is unfair for the small businesses and young families who invest time and money into the process. Everyone deserved to get a fair hearing at the Zoning Board of Adjustment.”
DeFusco said he believes Grana an intelligent voter who has shown an ability to communicate well and “has been well received citywide.”
He also didn’t understand why Weaver should be the replacement.
“I am dumbfounded how a first-year alternate who was [not reappointed to] the Planning Board [in 2015] is up for full-time commissioner,” he said. “What does Grana lack that Weaver has?”
DeFusco brought up Weaver’s vote on a past decision about construction on Fourth and Garden streets. He said Weaver was the swing vote against a design that included flood mitigation and green infrastructure, “a design that is consistent with the historic integrity of that neighborhood.”
“What we got was a building with less architectural value, no green infrastructure, and no continuity,” said DeFusco.
Councilman David Mello said of Weaver, “He isn’t an applicant as far as I am concerned. His term didn’t expire.”
“He didn’t attend tonight. He didn’t call me. I have no implication that he wants [this seat],” said Mello.
Mello said Grana has served the community well in the past and brings diversity to the board.
“Diversity means many things. Yes he is Hispanic… but he also lives in a condominium on the western side of town…we have barely any members who live south of Seventh Street,” said Mello.
He added, “It’s important not to demean people who have served without pay and essentially give them a demotion.”
Mello and former Councilman Tony Soares both noted that most of the board members own houses uptown and Grana is a condo owner in the southern part of the city, adding a different voice to the board.
Weaver lives uptown on 11th and Garden streets.
“Antonio Grana is a neighbor of mine and a condo owner like me… Antonio Grana is an outstanding candidate,” said Soares during the public comment part of the meeting. “He should remain on that board…everyone else on the board is a homeowner who lives north of Seventh Street. You are removing board diversity if he doesn’t keep his seat.”
Hoboken resident and developer Haney Ahmed also spoke in favor of Grana.
“The problem I have is it seems to be the same type of group, same mindset [on the board]. Most live in homes [rather than condos]. Antonio Grana is a great Zoning Board member who gives you a different perspective. It’s ok to have a healthy debate. That’s how good things come about. We shouldn’t have a bunch of ‘yes’ people.”
Ahmed added, “Why do you think we have six wards [represented on the council]? Each represents a different neighborhood or perspective. Tiffanie Fisher’s ward [uptown on the waterfront] is different than Michael Russo’s or Ruben Ramos’s wards. Why do you think we don’t just have at-large councilmen?”
(The seven-member board still lacks renters.)
Ahmed also stressed the importance of updating the zoning codes and codifying the master plan.
Fisher, who supported Weaver for the slot, said, “This is my least favorite time of year because of what goes into the decision making process. There is a personal side of it and a political side of it, and I’ve been on the zoning board and have lived here for 22 years. This [development] is my thing, as my colleagues know. I vote to reflect my concerns and what I think is best for Hoboken.”
Fisher said she and the rest of the council hope to update the city’s zoning ordinances and master plan this year.
This is an election year. It’s going to be really, really tough.” – Tiffanie Fisher
She added, “I think everyone thinks I’m anti-development, and I’m not. I’m a smart development person, a right development person. I want to have a Zoning Board made up of people that will protect the city, that is a little more conservative than what people might like…We are going to make sure that we are going to get our zoning coded, and all this gets done this year. This is an election year. It’s going to be really, really tough. It’s going to be a sh*t show.”
Councilman Peter Cunningham said he “respectfully disagrees with geographic diversity argument. Brownstone or high rise, we all have the same problems.”
Grana lost the commissioner’s seat in a 4-5 vote with council members Ravi Bhalla, Jim Doyle, Cunningham, Fisher, and Giattino voting against and Councilmen Michael Russo, Ruben Ramos, Mello, and DeFusco voting to approve Grana. Grana was appointed first alternate.
“I am pleased the City Council has reappointed me to the Zoning Board of Adjustment,” said Grana, who added he was not surprised by the outcome.
“I do believe the Zoning Board should have as much representation from the different wards as possible,” he added.
Weaver was appointed to the regular seat, with Mello, Ramos, Russo, and DeFusco in dissension.
Mayor Dawn Zimmer said in a later interview that she doesn’t recommend or appoint zoning members, but “I respect their decision.”
Regarding Weaver not being reappointed to the Planning Board –which Zimmer appoints – last time around, she said, “I just chose to go in a different direction.”
Last year’s council President Jennifer Giattino will remain president for 2017 after being nominated by Councilman Ravi Bhalla, unanimously approved by the council, and sworn in by City Clerk Jim Farina.
DeFusco nominated Cunningham to replace Councilman-at-Large David Mello as the council’s vice president. Cunningham was sworn in after the council unanimously approved his nomination.
Giattino nominated Doyle to be the councils representative on the Hoboken Planning Board. He was approved by a unanimous council vote.
Marilyn Baer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.