By Donald Wittkowski
Ocean City plans to use its power of eminent domain to acquire a key piece of property overlooking the main gateway into town, even though a real estate company wants to redevelop the same site into an office complex.
City Council took the first step Tuesday night to acquire the high-profile site at the corner of Ninth Street and Bay Avenue by introducing an ordinance that would pay the property owner $650,000.
The city and the property owner, Paul Chiolo, who heads the Keller Williams realty company, are locked in a legal battle over control of the property. The two sides failed to reach an agreement in negotiations, so the city is looking to seize the property through eminent domain.
Chiolo has proposed developing a corporate headquarters for Keller Williams on the site, but the city wants to transform the property into landscaped open space along the Ninth Street corridor, the main artery in and out of town.
Now that talks with Chiolo are at an impasse, the city has filed for a “declaration of taking” to get court permission to acquire the land, City Solicitor Dorothy McCrosson said. A court hearing is scheduled for Nov. 13.
Anticipating that the court will rule in the city’s favor, Council gave the $650,000 funding ordinance preliminary approval Tuesday and is scheduled to take a final vote Nov. 16 to pay Chiolo that amount for the land.
Some Council members expressed reservations over using eminent domain, the government power to seize private property for a public purpose. They said they would prefer to reach a deal with Chiolo instead of taking legal action.
“I hate eminent domain. I hate the concept of it,” Councilman Bob Barr said.
Councilman Michael DeVlieger voiced concern that the city may end up overpaying Chiolo if it doesn’t negotiate a settlement.
“I’m disappointed in the path we’ve taken to get here,” DeVlieger said.
The ordinance, though, was introduced by a 5-0 margin. The Council members said they believe there is strong support among the public for the city to acquire the land and turn it into a landscaped park.
McCrosson told Council that Mayor Jay Gillian considers Chiolo’s property a “key” piece of the city’s overall plan to create a more inviting gateway for visitors entering town on Ninth Street.
As part of a broad makeover of the Ninth Street gateway, the city has proposed redeveloping three former blighted gas station sites 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.
The final purchase price for the Getty site has not yet been disclosed, although the city earlier made a $650,000 offer for the property. McCrosson said there is a contract of sale for the Getty site, but the city is still awaiting the results of an environmental report before it finalizes the deal.
The property owned by Chiolo, meanwhile, was once the site of an Exxon gas station. Chiolo bought the land last year for $500,000 with the hope of redeveloping it for a new $2 million office building for Keller Williams.
Gillian originally wanted to incorporate the former Exxon site into the city’s plan for green space along the Ninth Street corridor. The mayor, though, seemed to endorse the Keller Williams project last year when he called it a “beautiful place” during a town hall meeting that focused on the city’s plans to give Ninth Street a facelift.
Chiolo’s attorney, Avery Teitler, alluded to Gillian’s comments praising the Keller Williams project when Teitler appeared before Council on Tuesday night on behalf of Chiolo. Teitler also said that members of Council “had made it clear” in earlier statements that they did not want to acquire Chiolo’s land through eminent domain.
Teitler indicated that the legal battle over the property is far from over. He said Chiolo still intends to build the real estate office and will present the project to the city’s planning board in November.
“It is a permitted use in that zone,” Teitler said of the project.
In January, the planning board rejected Chiolo’s original version of his proposed real estate office. Members of the public criticized the project, calling it an oversized “monstrosity” out of character with the city’s plan to beautify the Ninth Street corridor.
Members of the planning board who voted against the Keller Williams project expressed skepticism about the parking plans and the proposed traffic flow in and out of the office building. They 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 a series of objections, including the size of the building. The new version of the proposed two-story building includes about 4,800 square feet of space compared to 6,000 square feet in the original plans.
Architecturally speaking, the building would largely retain the same look as the original designs, but would be smaller now, Chiolo said in an interview in June.
In addition to reducing the building’s size, the new design also eliminated aspects of Keller Williams’ parking plan that would have required a variance from the planning board, Chiolo noted.
Chiolo has repeatedly said that the office building would be an attractive new commercial centerpiece for the Ninth Street entranceway.
But critics of the project said they would prefer to see the property turned into green space.