By Donald Wittkowski
City Council took the first step Thursday toward possibly acquiring — either by buying or condemning them — two blighted former gasoline stations whose rusting hulks mar the appearance of the main entryway into town.
The old Exxon and Getty stations at the foot of the Ninth Street corridor have long been a source of frustration for Mayor Jay Gillian and other city officials who are concerned about the negative impression the eyesores are making on visitors.
Another empty gas station, a former BP adjacent to the Getty site, was demolished in June after the city agreed to buy the property for $475,000 and transform it into open space.
By a 6-0 vote, Council introduced an ordinance Thursday that would give the city the option of acquiring the Exxon and Getty sites, as well as a neighboring waterfront business known as Bud’s Marine Outboard.
The city would like to demolish all three properties to create an expanse of landscaped open space that would spruce up the appearance of the Ninth Street entryway.
City Solicitor Dorothy McCrosson explained that Council would next have to authorize the funding to buy the sites outright or acquire them through condemnation.
“You hold the purse strings,” she told Council.
Condemnation would give the city additional legal safeguards to protect it from liability lawsuits if it acquired the sites and contamination was discovered later, McCrosson said. The onus for those liability claims would fall on the previous owners.
In its deal to buy the BP site, the city required the owner to remove the old underground gasoline storage tanks before the town took control of the now-vacant land. The owner was also required to test for contamination.
Although the city has already agreed to buy the BP site, that property was included in the same ordinance introduced by Council to possibly acquire the Exxon, Getty and Bud’s Marine Outboard tracts. By including the BP site, the city will give itself even greater legal protection from potential liability claims if contamination is discovered in the future, McCrosson said.
The Exxon site is already known to be contaminated with petroleum-related chemicals in the groundwater and soil. The contamination, which is suspected to stem from the station’s former operation, has been monitored for the last 27 years.
An environmental consulting firm overseeing the site told surrounding property owners in a letter last month that the contamination poses no danger and should dissipate by itself.
Despite Council’s introduction of the ordinance Thursday, the city is far from actually acquiring the Exxon site, as well as the Getty and Bud’s Marine Outboard properties. No serious negotiations have begun with the property owners. In addition, property appraisals still have to be done, McCrosson said.
“We have expressions of interest, but no agreements on price,” McCrosson said in an interview after the Council meeting.
Further complicating the situation are possible redevelopment plans for the Exxon site. The Ocean City real estate firm Keller Williams has agreed to buy the property for an undisclosed price, but is waiting for the current owner to clean it up before it completes the deal.
Keller Williams has announced plans to build a multimillion-dollar real estate office on the site.
The mayor, though, said he wants to wait a while before making up his mind whether to turn the Exxon property into open space or support the Keller Williams project. His main priority is to have the site cleaned up, he stressed.
“From day one, it’s been a blight and an eyesore,” Gillian said in an interview.
Gillian expressed concern about the size of the proposed Keller Williams office building. He noted that the site occupies a prominent spot on the Ninth Street corridor.
“We don’t want an oversized building at the corner of Ninth Street and Bay Avenue,” he said. “I know what Keller Williams wants to do. At the end of the day, I want it done right. I want that site cleaned up.”
Councilman Keith Hartzell questioned whether the city’s efforts to covert the Exxon site into open space would clash with the Keller Williams project. He said the city must “weigh the rights” of Keller Williams against its own plans for the property.
“I’m not 100 percent convinced that the Exxon lot has to be open space,” said Hartzell, who nonetheless joined the 6-0 vote to introduce the ordinance.
Councilman Tony Wilson abstained from voting to avoid a possible conflict of interest. He owns a plumbing and heating business that is located within the same area as the properties the city may acquire.
A public hearing and final vote on the property ordinance are scheduled for the Aug. 25 Council meeting.
In other business Thursday, Council awarded a $2.1 million construction contract for a new fire station at 29th Street. The current firehouse, built in the 1950s, has been badly damaged by coastal storms in recent years and will be demolished in the fall.
To help pay for the new firehouse, Council redirected $450,000 in funding from a 2013 bond ordinance that finances capital projects in the city.
In another key vote, Council gave final approval to a nearly $19 million bond ordinance to fund a series of capital improvements.
Among the major projects that will be financed by the bonds are $8.9 million worth of road and drainage improvements in the north end of town. A new pumping station and outfall pipe are also planned to help alleviate flooding. The boundaries for the project are roughly from First Street to Eighth Street and from West Avenue to Bay Avenue.
The city will receive a $5 million grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to help pay for the north end project.
In addition, the flood-prone area between 26th and 34th streets is in line for a series of road, drainage and pumping improvements. The bond ordinance includes $8 million to fund that work.
Also at Thursday’s meeting, Council approved a proclamation honoring the Ocean City High School Red Raiders championship baseball team. After winning its conference, the team went on to capture the Group III South Jersey title and finish with a 21-6 record