By DONALD WITTKOWSKI
City Council gave final approval Thursday night to three bond ordinances that include more money to complete the acquisition of property that will create a large swath of open space protected from housing development.
The bond ordinances provide an extra $615,000 to buy the land that encompasses a full block bordered by 16th and 17th streets between Simpson and Haven avenues next to the Ocean City Community Center.
One of the parcels formerly served as the site of a car dealership and had been proposed for a housing project.
In February, Council approved a funding package of nearly $12 million to acquire the land from the private owners, Klause Enterprises and Palmer Center LLC. The three bond ordinances approved Thursday will increase the total amount that the city is offering to pay for the parcels to about $12.5 million.
The next step calls for the city to deposit the money with the state Superior Court to pay for the land, City Solicitor Dorothy McCrosson said. The city is in court as part of its condemnation action to acquire the land through eminent domain.
Although the city expects to take ownership of the land soon, it still must litigate the final amount it will pay the owners. The court could decide if the property is worth more than the $12.5 million that the city is offering, McCrosson explained.
“The litigation will determine what the value is,” she told the Council members during the meeting, which was held by Zoom because of the coronavirus pandemic.
The city is adding an extra $615,000 to the purchase price to reflect the most recent property appraisals.
The centerpiece of the three properties is the former site of the Perry-Egan Chevrolet dealership at 16th and Simpson. With the extra money that is being added now, the city is offering about $6.9 million for that piece of land.
The land owners, Jerry and Harry Klause, of Klause Enterprises, previously wanted to build a 22-lot housing development on the site before the city stepped in to acquire the land. The old car dealership has been demolished and the site has been cleared.
For more than two years, Mayor Jay Gillian and City Council have been hoping to buy the land to prevent it from being used for densely packed housing construction that would add to the city’s overdevelopment.
At the same time it is buying the former auto dealership site from the Klause brothers, the city is looking to acquire two adjacent parcels that would round out the block bordered by 16th and 17th streets between Simpson and Haven avenues.
Those two parcels are controlled by Palmer Center LLC, a group owned by John Flood, a real estate developer and former city councilman.
The city is offering $3.1 million to buy the Palmer Center property at 109 16th Street. The land is currently vacant, but has been approved for housing development.
In addition, the city is offering $2.5 million for more Palmer Center land at 1600 Haven Avenue. That site has no development approvals, McCrosson previously told Council.
Altogether, the three parcels would help the city to create a corridor of public land stretching from 15th to 20th streets. The property would connect the city’s Emil Palmer Park, the Community Center and other public facilities within the five-block area.
As part of the land deal, an escrow account would be set up to require the current owners to pay for any environmental cleanup of the land, if needed, after the city takes possession, McCrosson said.
The mayor has proposed preserving the property for open space and possibly using a portion of it for public parking to support the Community Center, a municipal complex that attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors each year. The complex includes the Free Public Library, the Arts Center, the Aquatic & Fitness Center, the Historical Museum and the Seniors Center.
In other business Thursday, the Council members expressed concerns and outright opposition to a proposed offshore wind farm that would be powered by 99 huge turbines located 15 miles out into the ocean from Atlantic City to Stone Harbor, including Ocean City.
Council Vice President Michael DeVlieger took the lead with some intense questioning of a representative for Orsted, the Dutch energy company that plans to build what would be a 1,100-megawatt, wind-powered facility.
The Orsted representative, Kris Ohleth, repeatedly apologized for not being able to answer a number of questions about some of the economic, financial and technical aspects of the project.
DeVlieger pressed Ohleth on the possible negative impacts the wind farm would have on Ocean City’s principal industries, tourism and real estate.
DeVlieger maintained that there are simply too many risks to Ocean City’s “highly sensitive and highly profitable” tourism industry and real estate market for him to support the project.
In some of his strongest comments, he said bluntly, “I just don’t like this project being jammed down our throats.”
“The simple fact of the matter is, it’s risky,” he also said. “Why should we, as a community, take that risk?”
The councilman added, “I see no benefit to us, honestly.”
DeVlieger also raised doubts whether Ocean City residents would be hired for the nearly 70 permanent jobs that the project will create, including those based at the company’s Atlantic City operations and maintenance center. In addition to the permanent positions, Orsted has said the project will create thousands of temporary construction jobs.
The Council members were disappointed when Ohleth said she couldn’t supply some of the more technical details of the project. They were also surprised when she couldn’t provide the estimated cost of the wind farm, other than to say it would be more than $1 billion.
One by one, other members of the governing body joined DeVlieger in making critical remarks about the project’s possible negative impacts on Ocean City. Councilman Peter Madden predicted that it is going to be “a mess.” Councilman Keith Hartzell said that he was “very dismayed” by the project.
“It’s crazy to me,” Councilman Tom Rotondi added.
The wind-powered turbines that will generate electricity would be spaced about a mile apart in rows and installed in deep water. The hub of the turbine would stand 511 feet tall, with blades increasing the height to a total of 905 feet, Orsted has said.
Some members of Council and the public said they are worried that the turbines would easily be visible from the shoreline, creating a visual blight, even though they would be located 15 miles offshore.
Councilman Jody Levchuk said the turbines would be “sticking out like a sore thumb.”
The life expectancy of the wind farm is 25 years. If Orsted did not receive government approvals to continue operating the project after 25 years, the turbines and related infrastructure would be dismantled and removed, Ohleth explained.
“To do all this disruption for 25 years with no guarantees makes no sense to me,” Councilwoman Karen Bergman told Ohleth.
Council President Bob Barr expressed his disappointment with Ohleth’s presentation, noting that she “walked into a buzz saw” while facing serious questions from the governing body.
Barr asked Ohleth to make a follow-up presentation on the project to Council, including bringing some of Orsted’s technical experts to answer questions.
“I just hope we can do better,” Barr said of Orsted’s next presentation.
He also wants Orsted to hold an in-person meeting in Ocean City with the public, once the pandemic subsides, to give local residents an overview of the company’s plans. Orsted has been holding a series of in-person and Zoom meetings with the public in New Jersey, including two in Ocean City last February and in August 2019.
Orsted has announced it plans to have the wind farm operational by 2024. It is currently going through a rigorous government permitting process that is expected to take two years to complete, Ohleth said.
The project is touted as a form of clean energy and is a centerpiece of Gov. Phil Murphy’s goal of having 7,500 megawatts of offshore wind capacity in New Jersey by 2035.
Ohleth gave a Zoom presentation to Council on the project in advance of Orsted seeking formal approval to possibly run underground electric cables through Ocean City. The cables would connect the offshore turbines to a substation next to the B.L. England Generating Station in Marmora. B.L. England is under consideration as one of the sites where Orsted would connect the wind farm to the land-based power grid.
Orsted would need Council’s approval for an ordinance allowing the company to run the cables under Ocean City’s streets. Ohleth said 35th Street is the company’s first choice, with 14th Street and Ninth Street also under consideration.
McCrosson, the city solicitor, said the mayor and his administration need more information about Orsted’s plans before the proposed ordinance can be presented to Council for its consideration.