By Maddy Vitale
The government watchdog group Fairness In Taxes submitted a petition Tuesday to force the city to hold a public referendum on a proposed $9 million property deal supported by the mayor and City Council.
The city has a tentative agreement to buy a large tract of land, nearly a full block, bordered by Simpson and Haven avenues between 16th and 17th streets. The site is where the former Ocean City Chevrolet dealership once stood before going out of business in January.
Members of City Council and Mayor Jay Gillian have stated that the purchase is to benefit the community by preserving the land for public use. The alternative could be 29 coastal cottages, a type of densely packed housing construction that city officials warn would add to the city’s overdevelopment.
Fairness In Taxes, or FIT, wants voters to have the final say on the property deal in a public referendum. The organization launched a petition drive in September to collect signatures.
Newly named FIT President Dave Hayes said the group needed 400 signatures and it got nearly 500. The petition is now in the hands of the City Clerk’s Office.
“Our job is to look out for the taxpayers,” Hayes said. “We are the only citizens watchdog group in Ocean City. We aren’t going to be popular. We do want to work with the city and we do want to be part of the process.”
In order for the petition to be certified, the clerk has 20 days to determine whether all of the signatures are from registered voters, Hayes said. He believes they are, and the petition will be certified. If that is correct, a referendum would be put to the voters in the spring, he added.
Ocean City Public Information Officer Doug Bergen spoke on behalf of the mayor on Tuesday, saying, “The City Clerk’s Office is reviewing the petition. The mayor will reserve comment until the review is complete.”
Hayes said FIT is not opposed to the city’s purchase, just the price tag. He said the 2014 assessment for the land was $3 million when it was zoned commercial. When it was rezoned residential later on, the assessment did not increase, he noted.
Gillian has agreed with the appraisal of $9 million and has said that he fears the price could potentially increase through a bidding war between the city and a developer over the tract.
In a public statement last week, Gillian said he believes a referendum would delay, if not kill, the city’s plan to buy the property and save it as open space.
“It remains my belief that if voters believe in preserving this city block for public use, they should not sign the petition seeking a public vote,” Gillian said in the statement. “Our tentative sales agreement expires Oct. 31. After that date, the property can and likely will be developed.”
The owners of the property, brothers Jerry and Harry Klause, have said they are sticking to their $9 million asking price. Two independent city property appraisals were conducted on the land, with one valuing the site at $8.3 million and the other at $9 million.
FIT believes the city is at risk of paying $2.5 million to $3 million too much for the property.
“We feel it is a great piece of property, but we don’t agree with the appraisals. I guess what made us do this petition came over the last City Council meetings,” Hayes explained. “We stood up and said there are problems with these appraisals and you should take a look at this and pump the brakes a little bit.”
City officials envision the property to be a centerpiece of a “public corridor” connecting Emil Palmer Field with the Ocean City Community Center and the Ocean City Intermediate School from 15th Street to 20th Street. They have also mentioned the possibility of using the land as the site for a new police station.