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Posted by the Asbury Park Press on 05/17/07

Citizens group hires law firm over drawbridge replacement


Law firm: Four-lane roadway would destroy character of towns

HIGHLANDS - A Princeton law firm has been hired to represent the Citizens for Rational Coastal Development, a group of area residents opposing the state's plans to replace the 75-year-old drawbridge on Route 36 connecting Highlands and Sea Bright.

The attorneys are Stuart Lieberman and Joshua Levy of Lieberman & Blecher, which concentrates in environmental and land use matters.

"These residents are the ones who will be most affected by what is being done," Levy said. "We want to give them a voice."

Shirley Olman of Portland Road said the citizens group was formed this past winter, and the law firm was hired about two months ago. There are about 20 active members in the group as well as 80 residents in the area that support the group.

"We decided to hire a law firm despite the fact Sea Bright and Highlands councils passed resolutions opposing the project," Olman said. She would not disclose how much the group is paying the law firm.

The goal of the organization is to find the definitive answer as to whether or not the bridge is fixable or if it has to be replaced. According to Levy, the firm is waiting to receive all the documents and plans regarding the project from the state Department of Transportation through the state Open Public Records Act and the federal Freedom of Information Act.

The residents in the group contend that the bridge needs work, but they would like to have the same style bridge reconstructed.

Mayor Richard O'Neil has said the DOT has been planning to reconstruct the bridge for about a decade.

The DOT's proposal is to replace the 30-foot-high drawbridge with a 65-foot fixed-span bridge. Last year, the DOT projected a spring 2007 start date.

However, as of Monday, Councilwoman Nancy Thomas said the DOT has not received all its permits to go ahead with construction. The DOT is awaiting state and federal approvals.

"We all know something has to be done," Thomas said, referring to replacing or refurbishing the existing bridge.

The estimated cost to reconstruct the bridge is about $100 million.

"The project creates tremendous implications for the environment and the quality of life in both Highlands and Sea Bright, as well as severely impacts upon the character of an important historical site - the Twin Lights," Lieberman said in a prepared statement.

He also noted that the construction of the fixed-span bridge appears to be part of a much bigger redevelopment project which the state failed to reveal to the people.

"Apparently they, (the state) felt that releasing details in a piecemeal fashion might allow them to avoid public scrutiny about preserving the character of these Shore towns and protecting the environment," he wrote.

The Rev. Martin McGrail of Portland Road, who lives nearby, commented on the Red Bank Bridge on Route 35 connecting Middletown and Red Bank.

"That bridge is beautiful," he said. "With today's technology, the state should be able to make that style bridge open and give it the height that is needed. I would much rather see that bridge built here, than a bridge that looks like the Bayonne Bridge (a steel bridge)."