After Mayor Ravi Bhalla vetoed an ordinance in July to allow fire escapes and rear fire staircases to exit into back yards, he and political foes sent out dueling email blasts on the subject, ramping up the controversy.
Bhalla said his veto was meant to preserve the “donut hole,” the combined backyard space behind homes around a rectangular city block of Hoboken. These spaces are protected by zoning laws that don’t allow buildings to take up more than 60 percent of a lot.
Council members Michael DeFusco and Tiffanie Fisher sponsored the new ordinance, meant to amend the laws so that homeowners could build fire escapes or exits into their back yard space, which won’t count as lot coverage. It passed in 7-2 vote on July 11.
They said the change was meant to help property owners who have to deal with zoning changes brought about by anti-flooding laws passed post-Hurricane Sandy, which don’t allow doors beneath flood elevation.
One resident has alleged that DeFusco was only pursuing the change to help a property owner who donated to his mayoral campaign last year.
The ordinance adds definitions for fire escape, fire stair, and rear egress stair, and also allows these architectural features to be exempt from lot coverage.
Fisher said the ordinance was intended to help residents affected by the city’s 2015 flood ordinance, by allowing them to build stairs to more easily access their backyards for safety and enjoyment purposes. The flood ordinance requires the lowest livable floor to be above flood elevation. Because that is often much higher than the building’s back yard, residents could not have an entrance to their yard below the flood elevation. Thus, exterior staircases from above the flood elevation would be needed to access the yard.
The permitted staircases in the vetoed ordinance would have been limited to three feet wide.
“The ordinance proposed by Councilman DeFusco and myself,” Fisher said in an email letter to constituents, “was meant to … allow property owners to refurbish/rebuild their existing footprint, comply with our local flood ordinance, but not have to apply to a municipal board to have safe and enjoyable access to their rear yard, while still working within the same width [as in] our current zoning laws.”
“This is an opportunity to make a small but important change to the way our city treats homeowners.” – Councilman Michael DeFusco
Protect ‘the donut’
Bhalla said in an email blast sent out to explain his veto that the zoning change would have enabled developers to build larger buildings “at the expense of Hoboken’s charm and character,” reducing light and air in the “donut hole” and resulting in the “gradual erosion” of rear yard open space.
Doyle said in a statement, “Rather than building these egress routes inside the building, which adversely impacts the amount of usable living space (and the value of the unit), the ordinance would have allowed these egress encroachment to jut into the rear donut and be borne by the neighbors rather than adversely impact the builder’s bottom line.”
Bhalla wrote, “The council, led by Mike DeFusco, chose to violate the public trust and place the special interests of developers and his donors above of the best interests of our city.”
DeFusco said the donor Bhalla alluded to was one person, a local restaurant owner and property owner in his ward — not “a developer or special interest as the mayor sensationalized, and it had absolutely nothing to do with my decision to take up the zoning issue.”
DeFusco said when the man, Michael Ranuro of Biggie’s Clam Bar, gave him a donation last year, Ranuro didn’t own the property he owns now.
However, the property, 318 Madison St., is the site for the old Biggies Clam Bar, which has been run by Ranuro’s family for years, and closed in 2016 when they focused on the location closer to the waterfront.
Big Mad LLC, a company owned by Ranuro and some of his family, officially purchased the property in February for $900,000 from Michael and Marie Yaccarino (Ranuro’s grandparents). They have an application before the Planning Board for mixed-use development at the site.
The building would require a height variance and a variance to exceed lot coverage and requests 61.8 percent lot coverage when only 60 percent is permitted.
The application proposes a five-story building with commercial on the ground floor.
He also wants the variance to build stairs as part of a rear fire escape.
DeFusco said that as soon as he knew Ranuro was submitting an application to the Planning Board, of which he is a member, he recused himself from that matter because Ranuro had donated to him.
“There is absolutely no merit to the mayor’s lies against me and worse, his attempt to defame a Hoboken-based small business for petty political gain,” said DeFusco.
Hoboken resident Michael Donnelly filed an ethics complaint with the state on Aug. 1, pointing to the donation from Michael Ranuro of Biggie’s Clam Bar for $1,200 to DeFusco’s campaign last November. DeFusco narrowly lost to Bhalla.
According to ELEC fillings, the donations were for $300 and $900 on Nov. 8, 2017.
Donnelly’s complaint claims the donation, coupled with the new ordinance, “suggests collusion between the councilman and Mr. Ranuro.”
Donnelly has also filed two other ethics complaints with the city clerk against DeFusco this summer, as well as two other council people who are political critics of Bhalla. Donnelly has been pictured with the mayor’s Chief of Staff John Allen, leading some to believe Donnelly is a Bhalla supporter.
Since the veto, DeFusco said he is working with other council members to reword the ordinance for a future vote.
He said over the last two weeks, he has received community feedback, and will reintroduce revised legislation in September with “additional assurances that limit this to the smaller, family-friendly, homes most negatively impacted by the city’s flood ordinance.”
“Much like the original ordinance, the revised [ordinance] will continue to maintain the 30 percent rear yard standard currently required, ensuring green space, light and air is preserved for all residents, while still allowing them to access their back yards,” said DeFusco. “This is an opportunity to make a small but important change to the way our city treats homeowners, and I’m not backing down from it.”
In the last few years, DeFusco has gotten involved in issues in which business owners felt they were hamstrung by red tape in City Hall in making small changes to their businesses. In 2016, he proposed legislation to make it easier for a salon owner to advertise his business with a “feather flag” sign outside, which had been banned. The owner had racked up tens of thousands of dollars in fines as a result. See https://tinyurl.com/Hobokenflag
Property owners have complained in the last several years that the city made it too hard to open a business or get variance approvals without a lot of red tape and expense.
But officials worry about the implications of the change.
According to a letter from Principal Planner George William from NiShuAne Group, to the Hoboken Planning Board, “…the proposal to exempt the projection of single rear egress stairs from the lot coverage would conflict with the master plan recommendations for maximum lot coverage, rear yard regulations, and preservation of the ‘donut hole.’ ”
Marilyn Baer can be reached at email@example.com.