By Donald Wittkowski
A controversial condo-hotel project rejected by Ocean City planners last year is about to come back to them for another vote – and this time they will have no choice but to approve it.
The proposed Soleil Resort is expected to receive preliminary approval when the planning board meets Oct. 11, a key step in what has been a lengthy battle by the project’s development group to finally build the oceanfront complex.
“It’s a formality. It’s an important one – don’t get me wrong – but still a formality,” said Stephen Nehmad, an attorney representing developers Select Properties Inc., of Colmar, Pa., and Ernst Brothers Designers and Builders, of Spring House, Pa.
The board must grant its approval following a court ruling in the developers’ favor in their lawsuit against the city.
Superior Court Judge Julio L. Mendez 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 by a 7-1 vote.
Mendez ordered the board to approve the site plan application. He found that the project fully complied with the city zoning requirements for a hotel redevelopment zone where Soleil would be built.
Nehmad, meanwhile, has been working with the planning board’s solicitor, Gary Griffith, on the wording of a resolution granting the project preliminary site plan approval. The developers will come back before the board at a later date for final site plan approval once they make some “minor modifications” to the project, Nehmad said in an interview Tuesday.
Jaime Cornell-Fine, planning board secretary, declined to comment Tuesday other than to say that the Soleil resolution is on the Oct. 11 agenda. She referred all questions to Nehmad.
Since approval of the resolution is considered a formality, the developers are not required to attend the meeting and do not plan to show up, Nehmad said.
The board members will have to approve the resolution in a public vote, but there is a possibility they will convene in executive session to discuss it privately, he noted.
After languishing on the drawing board for more than 10 years, the project appears to be finally moving closer to construction. Joe Ernst, one of the principals of Ernst Brothers Designers and Builders, said in an interview last month that the developers would like to break ground next spring. Soleil is planned on what is now a parking lot at the corner of Ocean Avenue and 11th Street.
Select Properties and Ernst Brothers have not disclosed the project’s development cost. The companies 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.
Ernst acknowledged it has been a long, arduous process for the developers since they first proposed the project in 2005. Since then, it has gone through a number of changes to reflect the wishes of the planning board as well as the conditions in the Ocean City real estate market, he explained.
He said the market is ripe now for a project that would give condo owners all the benefits of a resort-style hotel, including room service, maid service, a fitness center, a swimming pool and a host of other amenities.
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.
However, the planning board members were skeptical that Soleil would truly be a hotel. In rejecting the project, they concluded it fell short of the standards for the type of resort hotel that the city wants in the hotel redevelopment zone.
Some board members stated they did not believe that Soleil met the “spirit” of the city’s zoning law for the redevelopment area. They argued that the project was a hotel in “name only.”
The project also drew intense objections from some local business owners and members of the community. They contended that Soleil was a poorly disguised condominium complex, not the condo-hotel that the developers insist they plan 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 competitor for the Flanders, one of the city’s most historic and iconic businesses.
During three stormy public hearings last year 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.