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Quarterly Land Use Wrap (Part II) JCOW, Revals, Condomania, and Good Old Beach Replenishment 4.12.2006

By C.M. Mattessich

Part One of the Quarterly Land Use Wrap, published in last week’s Herald, provided statistical details of residential sales activity for the first quarter of 2006. This week, top news stories from the quarter are summarized.
Throughout the first quarter of 2006, soaring property values and tax revaluations dominated county land use news.
Also hot were the continued wave of high-end commercial development, particularly in the Rio Grande section of Middle Township;  beach replenishment projects;  and, in Wildwood and North Wildwood, a brewing tempest over the apparent construction of hundreds of multi-unit condominium structures in violation of applicable fire code.
Eminent domain also remained an issue of discussion and debate throughout the county, as municipalities started determining the approach they would take after the United States Supreme Court’s 2005 decision in Kelo v. New London, which permitted local governments to use the eminent domain power to take private property and convey it to private developers for the purpose of a community’s economic development.
In Avalon, a major dredging project replaced some eight blocks of beach on the severely eroded northern end of town.  Avalon spent $2.8 million on the project, and is continuing actively to explore means of addressing beach replenishment throughout the community.
Cape May witnessed its first large hotel-to-condo conversion at the former Sandpiper Beach Inn.  Tax Assessor Mike Jones told the Herald that city officials are watching with interest to determine what use the purchasers of these 51 new units.  Full-time use or weekend only?  Will units be rented out, and, if so, during the summer season only?  Answers to such questions, said Jones, will greatly impact Cape May’s future course.
A Cape May landmark – the oceanside Coachman’s Motor Inn and Rusty Nail Bar & Grill – sold during the quarter;  owned and run by the Hober family for over 40 years, the property may be turned into a condominium hotel.  On the northern end of town, the Coast Guard announced that the federal government may privatize housing at the U.S. Coast Guard base.  And the city’s Revitalization Committee devoted serious study and debate to issues relating to a new convention hall, a transformation of the Washington Street Mall, and the possibility of combining – perhaps even regionalizing – the City’s elementary schools in light of declining enrollment.
Ratables more than doubled in the Dennis Township revaluation, according to Tax Assessor Patricia Sutton.  By the end of the quarter, concerns about the reval seem to be quieting.  In addition to dealing with a reassessment during the quarter, the Township filed its “Smart Growth” plans with the state during the quarter, and is awaiting word on its proposal.
In Lower Township, the Ponderlodge Golf Course bankruptcy was a constant source of interest and activity, the most recent development being the state’s hurried purchase of the property for a reported $8 million.  Plans are to use the property as a nature preserve, although a shortened golf course also may be allowed.
A 76-unit apartment building for low-income seniors was approved for construction, to be located behind St. John of God Church on Townbank Road.  The developer is the Catholic Diocesan Housing Service Corporation of Camden.
In Lower Township’s Diamond Beach area, developer Eustace Mita and Achristavest LLC moved forward with plans for the former Grand Hotel site.  Mita told the Herald that he expects purchasers of planned upscale condo units to come from New York and northern New Jersey.   In early February, Achristavest purchased yet another long-standing Diamond Beach gem:  the Pier 6600 Motor Inn, which adjoins the Grand Hotel site.
While Achristavest marched on, the proposal to replace the Bayview Inn and Restaurant with a 24-unit condominium encountered strong opposition, not the least of which issued from the neighboring borough of Wildwood Crest.
In Middle Township, plans continued for a 16-unit residential subdivision on Goshen Road, about a mile north of Mechanic Street;  a 66-unit age-restricted project by K. Hovnanian on Bayberry Drive;  and a 19-home gated community on the Meineke Muffler site across from Kindle Ford.  All projects require additional governmental approvals.
Construction is just beginning at the Township’s new recreational facility off of Fulling Mill Road.  The Robert “Ockie” Wisting Fort Apache Rec Center will cost some $5 million and is expected to be built in phases over a six-year period.
Development continued apace in the Rio Grande section of Middle Township, with more stores opening in the large new Grande Center shopping center, and the adjoining Walmart nearing completion.
In early February, news came of the $18.7 purchase of a stretch of former farmland on Railroad Avenue south of Route 47, behind the Rio Grande post office.  U.S. Home’s 176-unit “Greenbriar Cape May” on the site of the former Wuerker farm, joined Beazer Home’s “Gatherings” project, and William Juliano/Delco LLC’s proposed project of more than 342 units on South Railroad Avenue, bringing to well over 500 the number of proposed new age-restricted dwelling units within a small radius of the intersection of Routes 9 and 47.
Also under discussion was the 42-acre tract once occupied by the Islander Raceway and Fun Park on Route 47, reportedly being explored for development as a community of townhomes and apartments.
In the Avalon Manor section of Middle Township, the state Department of Environmental Protection halted a hotly-contested waterfront retaining wall, finding that CAFRA review is necessary.
In January, North Wildwood was the site of a groundbreaking for Beazer Homes’ construction of 60 luxury beachfront condominiums, to be priced from the lower $800,000’s, at the site of the former popular Moore’s Inlet Pub and Restaurant.  (City officials noted a trend to smaller restaurants with upscale amenities.)
North Wildwood was recipient of a $3.8 million DEP grant for beach renourishment, and plans to use the funds for the stretch of shoreline between Second and 26th Avenues.
North Wildwood’s revaluation process was a major topic throughout the quarter.  Residents of the Philadelphia area, with second homes in North Wildwood, even held meetings in Philadelphia venues to discuss their concerns.  A record number of homeowners filed appeals of their new assessments with the County Tax Board.
In Sea Isle City, officials and citizens alike continued to grapple with beautification issues and a concern that a disproportionate number of businesses are selling to developers of residential housing.  Plans continue for an impressive new lifeguard station, with a temporary facility ready for this summer’s crew.
The big news in Stone Harbor was the gateway project, approaching completion as the quarter ended.  Drivers contended with detours and bumpy streets at the entrance to the Borough, as contractors completed landscaping and paving.
The privately-owned and still-closed Beesleys Point Bridge in Upper Township was the subject of intense interest due to concerns for both adequate ingress-egress to the county in the event of an emergency, and concerns that visiting traffic will reach an all-time high this summer season.   Assemblyman Jeff Van Drew (D-1st) has indicated that he expects the state to take, and reopen, the bridge.
The Strathmere section of Upper Township had an unusually active quarter.  Some residents of the small, typically quiet community began talking “secession” due to displeasure over revaluation results in Upper Township.  On a more positive note, the state DEP gave the go-ahead for a rock seawall project along Ocean Drive – a relief to many residents who experienced a closing of Ocean Drive as recently as mid-January when waves rolled across the roadside during a storm.
West Cape May, having finally completed its master plan, continued a drive to create an historic preservation commission.  A public hearing is scheduled this month on that issue.
In Wildwood, developer K. Hovnanian unveiled its plans for development of the former back-bay landfill, including 298 homes of differing styles.
Mayor Carl Groon of Wildwood Crest noted that his town remains “in transition” after its recent passage of a master plan designed to provide incentives to the hotel/motel industry.  It is expected that debate on those incentives will intensify in the second quarter, as seasonal hotels and motels continue to re-open for this year.

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