By Donald Wittkowski
A proposed all-suite boutique hotel that languished on the drawing board while the economy remained sluggish for several years was granted final approval Wednesday night by Ocean City planners.
Called the North Island Inn, the 15-unit complex is planned at the corner of 10th Street and Ocean Avenue and would join a cluster of hotels in the same area owned by the project’s developer, Anthony J. Frank, and his family.
By a 9-0 vote, the Ocean City Planning Board granted final site plan approval for the hotel, welcoming the project as a key addition to the city’s hospitality district in the heart of town.
“We would love to see a new, modern hotel in our city,” planning board member Gary Jessel said. “It looks like this is going in that direction.”
The board originally gave the project preliminary approval in 2014, but the hotel was put on hold during the fragile economy, Frank explained in an interview.
“Now, the economy is definitely picking up,” he said of the reason for reviving the project.
Although he now has final site plan approval in hand, Frank plans to wait until the fall of 2019 to begin construction and would open the hotel in 2020. It would include three stories of hotel space built over a ground-level garage.
North Island Inn would be located across the street from Frank’s Impala Island Inn at 10th Street and Ocean Avenue. It would be the latest addition to an enclave of Frank-owned lodging facilities in the same neighborhood, including the Wild Dunes Inn and the Ebb Tide Suites. Frank also owns the Beach Club Suites on the Boardwalk.
Frank said the experience he gained from developing other hotels has given him the confidence to move forward with the North Island Inn.
“I’ve done it before. All of them were successful,” he said.
North Island Inn will not be affiliated with any hotel chains, Frank noted. The inn’s all-suite accommodations will allow the property to market itself to families that are taking extended vacations in Ocean City.
To create space for the North Island Inn, Frank plans to demolish a small annex of the Impala Island Inn as well as an old garage that occupies the corner of Ninth Street and Ocean Avenue. The annex and the garage will continue to operate through the 2018 and 2019 summer tourist seasons, but will be torn down when construction begins on the hotel.
In other business Wednesday night, the board gave preliminary site plan approval to a proposed condo-hotel project that was rejected last year but gained new life during a legal battle with the city.
A Superior Court judge ruled in August that the planning board exceeded its authority and acted in an “arbitrary, capricious and unreasonable” manner when it denied site plan approval in April 2016 for the proposed Soleil Resort project.
Judge Julio L. Mendez found that the project fully complied with the zoning requirements in the city redevelopment zone where it would be built. He ordered the planning board to approve the project.
Faced with no other choice, the board gave Soleil its unanimous approval Wednesday. There was no discussion about the project before the vote was taken.
Select Properties Inc., of Colmar, Pa., and Ernst Brothers Designers and Builders, of Spring House, Pa., have teamed up to develop the Soleil project on what is now a parking lot at the corner of Ocean Avenue and 11th Street, adjacent to the Flanders Hotel.
The developers have proposed a 111-unit oceanfront complex that would function as a hotel. While the six-story building would remain a hotel resort, the individual units would be sold as condominiums.
The planning board members had expressed skepticism that Soleil would truly be a hotel. They argued that the project was a hotel in “name only” when they voted 7-1 last year to reject the project.
Soleil also drew objections from some local business owners and members of the community last year. They contended that it was a poorly disguised condominium complex, not the condo-hotel that the developers had insisted they wanted to build.
In particular, the project aroused fierce public opposition from residents in the adjacent Flanders Hotel, which operates as a condo-hotel. Soleil is regarded as a potential formidable competitor for the Flanders, one of the city’s most historic and iconic businesses.
During three stormy public hearings that led up to the planning board’s rejection of the project, opponents claimed that the Soleil was too big for the surrounding neighborhood and would create gridlock on local streets already congested during the peak summer tourist season.
Soleil’s developers must return to the planning board at some point to seek final site plan approval, a process that will subject the project to further public scrutiny.
In an interview last month, Joe Ernst, one of Soleil’s partners, said the development team hopes to begin construction in 2018. He noted the developers are in the process of applying to the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection for a coastal construction permit needed for the project.
Select Properties and Ernst Brothers have indicated they intend to build Soleil in three stages, starting with a condo tower on Ocean Avenue, followed by a parking garage and ending with another condo tower on 11th Street.