By Donald Wittkowski
City Council approved a $650,000 funding package Thursday night to acquire a high-profile piece of land through eminent domain, but the property owner has plans to redevelop the site and is vowing a court fight to keep it.
The dispute is over a strategically located site at the corner of Bay Avenue and Ninth Street overlooking the main gateway into Ocean City. The city hopes to transform the vacant property into a landscaped park, but the local real estate company Keller Williams wants to use it to build a new corporate office.
The city and Keller Williams owner Paul Chiolo are locked in a legal battle over control of the property. The two sides failed to reach an agreement for a buyout, so the city is looking to seize the property through eminent domain.
However, Chiolo said he has no intention of surrendering the land and is moving ahead with plans to build the office.
“They filed a lawsuit against us. We have to defend it,” Chiolo told reporters after the Council meeting Thursday.
Now that talks with Chiolo are at an impasse, the city has filed for a “declaration of taking” to get court permission to condemn the land, City Solicitor Dorothy McCrosson said. A court hearing is scheduled for Dec. 4.
In related action, Council gave final approval Thursday to a $650,000 funding ordinance that would provide the money to buy the property from Chiolo once the city is given the go-ahead by a judge.
Council members noted they were reluctant to use eminent domain, but said there has been an overwhelming response from the public to preserve the land as open space instead of seeing it redeveloped by Keller Williams.
Councilman Bob Barr said the property would allow the city to create a “tremendous gateway” to welcome visitors arriving on the Ninth Street corridor, the primary artery in and out of town.
“We have an opportunity to do something for the public good,” Barr said in comments echoed by other Council members.
An abandoned former Exxon gas station once stood on the property before Chiolo demolished the blighted structure. He paid $500,000 to buy the site last year.
As part of a broader makeover of the Ninth Street gateway, the city has proposed converting the Keller Williams property and two former gas station sites across the street into green space. The city bought an old BP station last year for $475,000 and is in the midst of acquiring an old Getty station site next door.
“I’m just doing what the community wants. The community wants us to clean up Ninth Street,” said Mayor Jay Gillian, a major proponent of turning the old gas station sites into landscaped parks.
Gillian said the city is in the final stages of acquiring the old Getty gas station site, once the paperwork is completed. The purchase price for the Getty site has not yet been disclosed, although the city earlier made a $650,000 offer for the property.
Once it is acquired by the city, the Getty property will be combined with the adjacent former BP site already under the municipality’s ownership. The two properties will allow the city to create a large swath of green space at the corner of Ninth Street and Bay Avenue. The Keller Williams site across the street would give the city even more land for Ninth Street’s facelift into an inviting entryway.
But Chiolo argued that his project would be even more “eye-appealing.” In remarks to Council before it voted on the funding ordinance, he indicated he is nearly ready to start construction.
“We are prepared to build this building. We have the financing,” he said.
Chiolo has repeatedly said that the office building would be an attractive new commercial centerpiece for the Ninth Street entranceway.
Last week, the city’s planning board gave the project its approval. Chiolo revised the project after the board rejected the original plans last January. At that time, the board expressed skepticism about the parking plans and the proposed traffic flow in and out of the office building.
The planning board had also raised concerns that vehicular traffic generated by the office could create a danger for pedestrians and bicyclists using the nearby walkway along the Route 52 Causeway bridge, which feeds the Ninth Street artery.
Chiolo redesigned the project in hopes of smoothing over those objections, as well as complaints about the size of the building. The new version of the proposed two-story complex includes 4,900 square feet of space compared to 7,000 square feet in the original plans.
Perhaps the most dramatic change with the project is Chiolo’s new plan to add elaborate landscaping to the front of the building along Ninth Street. Chiolo told Council that the landscaped area would serve as a park for the walkers, bicyclists and joggers who use the Route 52 Causeway. It would also include a “pet fountain” for people walking their dogs.
Although some of the Council members praised Chiolo’s project as a “beautiful building,” they voted to move ahead with plans to seize the land through the city’s power of eminent domain.
Barr and Councilman Michael DeVlieger described the vote as a tough decision. Ultimately, though, they said they were swayed by the public’s desire for open space. They both noted they had spoken to many residents about the Keller Williams project, but there was overwhelming sentiment in favor of having green space instead.
Speaking to reporters after the meeting, Chiolo said he believes the mayor and Council reneged on what he believes was their pledge not to condemn his property if he moved forward with plans to build the office complex.
“We believe it’s an unfair taking,” he said.
Chiolo predicted that the city would be saddled with a “$1 million-plus burden” if it acquires his property. He arrived at that figure by combining the proposed purchase price for the land with the legal fees for the court fight. He also said the city would incur a cost for turning the site into a park and would lose out on the property tax revenue for privately owned land.