By Donald Wittkowski
A petition drive for a public referendum that would have given voters the final say on Ocean City’s $9 million purchase of a large tract of land failed to collect enough valid signatures, the city clerk ruled Wednesday.
However, the group that organized the petition drive disputed the clerk’s findings and said it will consult with its attorneys for a possible court fight to keep the referendum effort alive.
“We’re willing to do everything it takes,” said Dave Hayes, president of Fairness In Taxes, a local government watchdog group.
FIT submitted a petition to the City Clerk’s Office on Tuesday to stop the city from buying a nearly full block of property for $9 million. Arguing that the city is overpaying for the land, FIT wants voters to decide in a referendum whether the deal should be completed.
City Council and Mayor Jay Gillian have stated the property deal would 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 town’s overdevelopment.
After spending all day Wednesday certifying the signatures on FIT’s petition, City Clerk Melissa Rasner ruled that 399 of them were valid, far short of the 597 she said were needed for a referendum under state law.
“The number of qualifying signatures does not meet the sufficient number of signatures,” she wrote in a one-page letter to Hayes. https://ocnjdaily.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/10/clerks-letter.pdf
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, however, 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, Hayes said.
“So it is our position that what we did was legal and in accordance with New Jersey state law,” he said. “We’re referring it to our lawyers.”
Hayes said FIT was not surprised that the city interpreted the law to require the petition to have a higher number of signatures to put a referendum on the ballot.
“To be honest, we expected this,” he said. “This is a big thing for them.”
The city has a tentative agreement to buy a 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.
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.
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.
The owners of the property, brothers Jerry and Harry Klause, have said they are sticking to their $9 million asking price. Jerry Klause told City Council at its Sept. 27 meeting that his family wants to sell the land 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. The mayor and members of Council have made it clear they don’t want high-density housing construction, such as coastal cottages, built on the land because the city is already struggling with overdevelopment.
Gillian, who argued a referendum would delay or kill the deal, wants to buy the property now to avoid getting bogged down in a possible bidding war with housing developers over the land.
“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 a statement last week. “Our tentative sales agreement expires Oct. 31. After that date, the property can and likely will be developed.”
On Wednesday, the mayor issued another public statement saying that the city clerk notified FIT that the petition “includes an insufficient number of signatures under the state law that allows voters to reject municipal ordinances.” Gillian attached a copy of Rasner’s letter to Hayes with his statement.
FIT has said it is not opposed to the city buying the land for public use, but believes the $9 million price tag is between $2.5 million and $3 million too high.
“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.”
After City Council approved a bond ordinance in September to finance the purchase, FIT responded with its petition drive. Tuesday was the deadline for submitting the petition.
“I think the good thing about this is, we didn’t do it to win or lose. We did it because we thought it was the right thing to do,” Hayes said.
In recent weeks, Hayes and other FIT members have appeared during City Council meetings to express their concerns about the property deal. Hayes said they plan to attend the Council meeting 7 p.m. Thursday, but he indicated they probably won’t speak about the petition during the public comment portion.
“We think it speaks for itself,” he said of the petition. “We think the community has spoken, too.”