By Donald Wittkowski
Former Ambassador Bill Hughes, calling on his diplomatic skills, urged both sides in the emotionally charged debate over Ocean City’s $9 million purchase of a large tract of land to resolve their differences to avoid a possible drawn-out court fight.
Hughes threw his support behind the property deal during remarks Thursday night at a City Council meeting that once again highlighted differences between city officials and a local taxpayers group over the purchase.
“See it through. Don’t give up. It’s important to stay the course, because we’re going to need that property,” Hughes said while appealing to the Council members and Mayor Jay Gillian to complete the deal.
Hughes, 85, who has lived in Ocean City for 60 years, said the transaction offers the city a rare opportunity to buy a large piece of strategically located land that could be preserved for public use. He noted that the city squandered opportunities decades ago to save public property in its rush for more tax ratables.
“I saw what happened in the ’50s, when we were really selling off a lot of that land,” he said. “Unfortunately, what happened over those years, we didn’t save enough land for public purposes.”
The city has a tentative $9 million agreement to buy nearly a full block of land along Simpson and Haven avenues between 16th and 17th streets. The property is where a former Chevrolet dealership stood before it went out of business in January.
The mayor and Council have discussed plans to possibly preserve the land as open space, creating a “public corridor” linking Emil Palmer Park with the Ocean City Community Center and the Ocean City Intermediate School from 15th to 20th streets. They have also mentioned possibly using the site as the home for a new police station.
However, the land buy is facing intense opposition from Fairness In Taxes, a local government watchdog group. FIT supports the idea of acquiring the property for public use, but objects to the $9 million price tag, arguing that the city is overpaying by $2.5 million to $3 million.
A petition drive organized by FIT to force a public referendum on the property deal fell short Wednesday when it failed to collect enough valid signatures to put the issue on the ballot. City Clerk Melissa Rasner ruled that only 399 signatures were valid, far short of the 597 she said were needed for a referendum under state law.
Rasner said the petition required valid signatures from at least 15 percent of the 3,980 total voters in Ocean City who cast ballots in the Nov. 7, 2017, election for the state Assembly.
FIT, though, believes the petition drive needed valid signatures from 10 percent of the voters in Ocean City’s municipal election last May. Under that threshold, about 400 valid signatures would have been needed for a referendum, FIT President Dave Hayes said.
Before the Council meeting, Hayes said FIT is consulting with its attorneys for possible litigation to keep the referendum effort alive.
But during the public portion of the meeting, Hayes struck a more conciliatory tone by telling the Council members and Gillian that FIT wants to work with them “to make Ocean City the home we are all proud of.”
Threats of litigation over the petition drive prompted Hughes to urge both sides to go to arbitration to settle their dispute, if necessary. He warned that a lawsuit would likely lead to a protracted and expensive court fight.
Arbitration, Hughes explained, would allow both sides to choose a representative, with an independent third party to rule in the dispute, much like a judge in a trial. But it would be faster than litigation.
Hughes, a former South Jersey congressman who served as ambassador to Panama during President Bill Clinton’s administration, expressed concern that lengthy litigation might ruin the city’s opportunity to buy the land.
“It’s become contentious, unfortunately,” Hughes said in an interview with reporters after the Council meeting.
Gillian and Council President Peter Madden welcomed Hughes’ endorsement of the property deal.
“It’s great to have that kind of backing in what we’re trying to do,” Madden said in an interview.
Gillian, in a separate interview, called Hughes “a statesman” who isn’t taking sides in the dispute.
“He supports Ocean City. He’s not supporting the mayor or Council. He supports what’s right for Ocean City,” Gillian said.
Hughes revealed Thursday night in his remarks that the city plans to conduct a third appraisal to determine the value of the property.
Previously, two independent city property appraisals were done, with one valuing the site at $8.3 million and the other at $9 million. Those property appraisals are at the center of the ongoing dispute between the city and FIT.
Michael Hinchman, a former FIT president and outspoken critic of the property deal, argued that both appraisals were “flawed.” He presented the Council members Thursday night with data that he said would be a proper way to conduct an appraisal on the site.
Hinchman told Council that he plans to file an Open Public Records Act request with the city for real estate data that would support his claims that the appraisals have grossly overvalued the land.
Drew Fasy, an Ocean City resident and retired real estate broker, spoke out in favor of the land deal, calling it a “wonderful opportunity” for the city to acquire a large piece of property for public use.
“I applaud you for going out aggressively for this strategic property,” Fasy said to the Council members.
The owners of the property, brothers Jerry and Harry Klause, are asking $9 million for the land. Jerry Klause told City Council at its Sept. 27 meeting that his family wants to sell the property to the city for public use, but is willing to consider offers from housing developers.
Klause said he has approval to build 29 coastal cottages on the site, a type of densely packed housing construction. Gillian and Council have made it clear they don’t want high-density housing on the land because the city is already struggling with overdevelopment.
The city’s tentative agreement with the Klauses expires Oct. 31. Gillian has warned the property will be developed for housing if the city doesn’t complete the deal. Council approved a bond ordinance in September to finance the transaction.
FIT responded with its petition drive after Council approved the funding. Wednesday was the deadline for FIT to submit its petition for a referendum that would give voters the final say over the property deal. However, the city clerk concluded the petition lacked enough valid signatures after spending Wednesday checking the voting records.
The mayor, who believes a referendum would delay or kill the transaction, wants to buy the property now to avoid getting bogged down in a possible bidding war with housing developers over the land.