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$65M-$70M Luxury Resort Proposed in Dennis

Developer John Connors Sr. is proposing a $65-70 million high-end resort in Dennis Township. His development portfolio includes some of Philadelphia’s landmark buildings and he will lead his firm’s first foray into Cape May County with Clermont Lodge
Shay Roddy

Developer John Connors Sr. is proposing a $65-70 million high-end resort in Dennis Township. His development portfolio includes some of Philadelphia’s landmark buildings and he will lead his firm’s first foray into Cape May County with Clermont Lodge, proposed for a 30-acre parcel at the corner of Route 9 and Route 83.

By Shay Roddy

CLERMONT – On a 30-acre offshore parcel full of thin and bristly woods, a little more than 6 miles from the beaches of Avalon, John Connors Sr., a developer who has rehabilitated some of Philadelphia’s most recognizable and historic buildings, sees an opportunity for a resort, the likes of which Cape May County has never seen.
Connors, who recently submitted a variance application to the Dennis Township Consolidated Land Use Board for the rustic, high-end retreat he plans for the intersection of Routes 9 and 83, has built an equally impressive portfolio of large-scale, new developments. 
He is president of Brickstone, a small Philadelphia real estate development firm with an eye for big projects and a focus on placemaking.
For being the man behind the restoration of Philadelphia landmark Wanamaker’s and all its grandeur and the equally recognizable Lit Brother’s department store, where he now keeps his office, Connors is surprisingly unostentatious.
When he met a reporter at a coffee shop to discuss his company’s first foray into Cape May County, a project he estimates will cost $65 million to $70 million, which he plans to call Clermont Lodge, he hopped out of a Ford Ranger pickup truck, not wearing a suit, but rather simple blue jeans and a camouflage hat from a local bait-and-tackle store.
After the meeting, he drove the reporter off road and onto the proposed site, tree branches scraping against the sides of his truck and free drink tokens for the Country Club Tavern rattling around his ashtray. 
He talked of the trips he used to make up and down Route 9, carting stuff in the bed of the truck back and forth to Teaberry, where his wife was a vendor. Connors is a Cape May County guy.
His proposal would have a total of 120 units, including 56 hotel rooms in a three-story lodge, 40 one- and two-bedroom bungalows and 24 individual cabins, spread across the currently undeveloped 30-plus acre property on the east side of Route 9, just north of Route 83. The lot is sandwiched between sprawling residential properties to the north and south, the Garden State Parkway to the east, and Route 9 to the west.
Clermont Lodge also calls for a tavern, playhouse and two event barns. The lodge, event barns, and playhouse would be built on a proposed 2-acre, man-made lake. Much of the woods that occupy the property would be preserved, and walking trails would lead to pickleball courts, a croquet lawn, multiple pools, a firepit and a picnic area.
Connors, who has been a homeowner in the county for over 20 years – first in Stone Harbor Manor and now in Court House – said he found himself spending more time off the islands and began to see the full county’s untapped potential.
He’s also been extremely selective in his real estate development projects. The Wharton alumn has some heavy hitters in his portfolio, but he has sacrificed volume for those crown jewels.
“We aspire to be best in class. That’s what we do. We’re not out doing 100 developments at the same time. We do a limited number, and we focus. We want to compete with the best,” Connors said.

The Big Idea 

Connors, who said he uses his Court House home nearly year-round, began to come up with the concept for Clermont Lodge two years ago, noticing the number of available rentals dwindling and limited luxury hotel options. Seeing the median real estate price in Avalon hit $3 million, he knew it was time to act.
“That’s one of the things that pushed the go button for me,” he said.
Last summer, Connors got the undeveloped property under contract. He signed a purchase agreement in July 2022 to buy the land from Arawak Paving Company, of Hammonton, Atlantic County. He said he could not disclose the sale price until the deal is finalized. 
The location was important, Connors said, because of the Clermont Village Center zoning designation, which covers at least the front half of the property.
“We’re not trying to bang a square peg into a round hole,” Connors said. “We tailored this, specifically, to meet the master plan as drafted. So, we expect if they’re committed to their master plan, we should be pretty well received.”
He said he was inspired for the design and feel of the resort while staying at the Cottage Grove Inn, in California’s Napa Valley, and also drew inspiration for the bungalow design from the Yachtsman Hotel, in Kennebunkport, Maine, and other inspirations from Woodloch Resort, in the Pocono Mountains, and Blackberry Farm, in Walland, Tennessee.
Connors thinks rooms in his lodge, the most accessible price point the resort will offer, will be priced equal to a room at the Icona Avalon or Congress Hall in Cape May. Bungalows would be the second tier, and cottages are the most private option. Those would have their own fireplaces and other cabin-like amenities.
He said he does not envision an offshore discount but acknowledged the market will ultimately determine that. The accommodations will be the resort’s biggest draw, he envisions.

The Opposition

Connors said he has seen some of the chatter back and forth in Facebook groups, like Dennis Township Community Info, where he said he doesn’t pay much attention, but has been frustrated by the misinformation.
In the group page, over 300 comments had flown back and forth on different posts circulating plans and spouting opinions about the project.
“Dennis is attempting to allow a giant, monstrosity of a resort lodge into the area at the already deadly intersection of Rt 83 and Rt 9. This is going to drastically impact everyone in the area with traffic, event noise, and reduce our property value with it. Dennis cannot allow this thing to get built,” one member, Cassandra Gluyas, wrote. “Do we really want Dennis to change from the quiet, family neighborhood to a party/vacation spot? Aren’t there enough of those here already?”
In a comment in response to that, Dennis Township Mayor Zeth Matalucci wrote:
“Dennis isnt ‘attempting’ to do anything, not sure where you got that from? Anyone can come in front of the land use board, it doesn’t mean it’ll be approved or denied.”
Matalucci, who is not on the Land Use Board, replied to an inquiry from a reporter by issuing a statement:
“I’m always pleased to see that business’s are interested in coming to our Township. We’re a welcoming community, and prefer to work with developers who take our residents concerns into consideration when introducing a new project. I’m hopeful that between our Land Use Board, our residents, and the various other permitting agencies that will need to be involved, that they can come up with a plan that will appease all.”
The mayor did not return a follow-up phone call from the Herald.
Connors addressed his view of the issue about traffic in an interview.
“It’s 120 hotel rooms. Compare that to alternative developments. This is not an extraordinary traffic burden,” Connors said. “Of course, it’s going to generate traffic; we’re going to develop the site, but it will be a less intense – from a traffic point of view – development than anything else you can legally build there.”
Others in the Dennis Facebook group expressed concerns about the resort competing with existing campgrounds. Connors said they would be after a different clientele.
Some in the group commented in support of the project.
“Maybe you should buy the land and keep it vacant,” wrote Adam Dotts.
“This is the most Not In My Backyard (NIMBY) I have ever seen in Cape May County! I hope they build it and it’s successful. Lower taxes, jobs…win win,” wrote Eric Springer.
For those concerned, Connors points to his track record.
“We’ve got a 40-year history of being good neighbors and making material contributions to the communities that we work in,” he said.

The Details 

The application submitted to the Land Use Board requests a use variance, since the back half of the property is zoned residential, and variances for maximum building height (the main lodge is proposed to be 45 feet, when only 30 is allowed), and a parking variance (229 spaces are proposed while 293 would be required).
The part of the property closest to Route 9, where the lodge, event spaces and tavern would be, are zoned as part of the village center, but the rear of the property, which is bordered by the Garden State Parkway, is zoned residential. That portion of the parcel is where the bungalows and cabins would be located.
In a legal memorandum attached to the application, the developer stated the lodge would not be visible from either the property to the north or the south of the site, despite its height, and the plan is to “maintain as much of the existing woods as possible.”
Connors said they have plenty of space to make more parking but feel they have identified the appropriate number of necessary spaces and do not want to disturb more of the natural land than necessary.
The intersection where the proposed entrance to the property would be is busy, especially with summer traffic that turns off Route 9 and utilizes Route 83 to access Route 47 and eventually Route 55 toward Philadelphia.
David Shropshire, a traffic engineer and transportation planner hired by the applicant to study traffic, found that Clermont Lodge “would generate significantly less traffic to the site than permitted uses that could be developed.”
Connors said the project will be institutionally financed, and he does not foresee any issue getting the money behind it.

Tavern and Event Venues 

Connors said the resort will have the county’s first purpose-built wedding venue. All other venues are adapting to become wedding venues, not fulfilling their intended uses when hosting weddings, according to Connors.
He understands there are concerns over noise but pointed out he will have 120 guest rooms on his property, so he will not want noisy, late-night events disturbing his guests.
Connors said he will qualify for a liquor license because he has a hotel with more than 100 rooms.
He said the plan is to eventually bring in an operating partner to run the resort, but has no qualms about operations, pointing out he was the landlord for the Crystal Tea Room, one of Philadelphia’s premier banquet facilities, located inside Wanamaker’s.
He said he also gained experience in the industry when Brickstone was Marriot’s preferred developer in the tri-state area, and the firm built eight Marriot select-service hotels over an eight-year period.
“We became pretty well-versed in what makes a hotel work and created a lot of relationships with people we still have relationships with. We have strong ties to the hospitality industry,” Connors said.

Land Use Board Weighs In

The application was on the agenda for the January meeting of the Consolidated Land Use Board, but was adjourned at the request of the board, Connors said. The board had been backed up, and he was not sure they would have been able to make the full presentation, so agreed to postpone until February.
“We’re going through the entitlement process, and the threshold issue is, is this use a use that’s going to be embraced by the township?” Connors explained is what the meeting will address.
Connors said the application will be heard over Zoom, which he is not in favor of. He said he prefers to meet people face to face and looks forward to the opportunity to answer questions from the public and the board members at the meeting.
Connors is not currently requesting preliminary and final site plan approval at this point, as there are several hurdles still to clear, including state Department of Transportation approval, a Coastal Area Facilities Review Act (CAFRA) permit from the state Department of Environmental Protection, a sewer service amendment, treatment works approval, Cape Atlantic Soils approval and Cape May County Planning Board approval, according to the applicant.
“The next set of submissions will be engineered site plans, real life traffic studies, but they’re all predicated on somebody saying the use is good,” Connors said, adding they come at another level of expense.
There are no wetlands or contamination on the property, Connors said.
Jessica Ferrier, the land use board administrator, said she anticipates the application will be on the Feb. 23 agenda.
Connors said he saw the approval processes at the local and state level as different.
“At the local level, it’s more winning hearts and minds. The state level is more technical. So, everything after this use variance becomes science, and we’re prepared to address the science,” he said.

What’s the Timeline?

Connors said he sees it taking another 12-18 months to get through the permitting process and then likely another year to two years in the construction phase of the project.
“What we did was create a program that was tailored to fit the Master Plan and comply with the spirit of the zoning ordinance of Dennis Township. Hopefully, we do that sensitively and expertly and deliver something that’s a win-win for everybody,” Connors said.
Thoughts? Questions? Contact the author, Shay Roddy, at sroddy@cmcherald.com or 609-886-8600, ext. 142.

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