By Donald Wittkowski
Residents of a neighborhood that has been disrupted by major construction work appeared before City Council on Thursday night to demand an end to a troubled project that has been grinding on for the past year.
The area between 28th and 34th streets remains cluttered with heavy construction equipment and “Road Closed” signs as part of a $6.5 million drainage project that is designed to bring relief to a flood-prone section of town.
However, construction has been crawling along behind schedule, frustrating both the residents and Ocean City officials as efforts continue to pressure the contractor to finally wrap things up in the midst of the busy summer tourism season.
One resident, Brian McPeak, who lives at 29th Street and Simpson Avenue, said the project has caused “complete and total chaos.”
Other residents blamed the construction work for exacerbating the flooding in the surrounding neighborhoods.
“The flooding is worse than ever,” Suzanne Hornick, who lives at 30th Street and West Avenue, told Council.
Paul Leonetti, who lives at 31st Street and Bayland Drive, said flooding at one corner near his house “is just ridiculous now.”
In all, seven residents complained about the project during the public comment portion of the Council meeting. Other neighbors sat in the audience in a show of support for the residents who spoke out.
McPeak urged Council to delay approving a payment of $812,000 to the general contractor, A.E. Stone Inc., for the most recent set of bills it submitted for work it has already completed.
Council approved the bills anyway, but expressed regrets that residents have had to endure so many hardships while the project has lingered for months.
“We will get this done. I’m sorry it’s gotten to this point,” said Fourth Ward Councilman Bob Barr, who represents the neighborhoods in the construction zone.
Barr has been an outspoken critic of A.E. Stone in recent weeks, going so far to urge the city never to hire the Egg Harbor Township-based company again for any other construction projects.
He said Thursday that he originally wanted to withhold payment on A.E. Stone’s latest bills, but reconsidered after he was advised by the city’s solicitor and the business administrator that the move could do more harm than good by possibly provoking a lawsuit by the contractor.
City officials had thought construction would be finished by Memorial Day weekend, just in time for the start of the bustling summer tourism season. However, the work continues to drag on, forcing the neighbors to endure ripped-up streets, detours and noisy construction equipment.
“It seems like the work isn’t getting done,” one resident Ed Poletti, who lives at 30th Street and Haven Avenue, said bluntly.
Poletti speculated that the best-case scenario is for the project to finish sometime in July or August, meaning that residents will have to ride out another month or two of construction disruptions.
After listening to residents complain at the Council meeting for about 20 minutes, Mayor Jay Gillian said he understands their anger. He noted that he remains frustrated with the project, too.
“I absolutely want that project to be done. I’m disgusted,” Gillian said.
Gillian, though, said rather than pointing fingers, he wants to work with the contractor to go “full steam ahead” and complete the project as quickly as possible.
“I’m going to stay positive and get the work done. You have my word on it,” he told the residents in the Council audience.
Construction consists of three major parts, including repaving the streets, installing new drainage pipes to replace some that are 40 to 60 years old and building three pumping stations.
The pumping stations, a crucial component of the plan, will help remove storm water from the flood-prone neighborhoods and channel it to drainage pipes leading to the bay.
No completion date for construction was given during the Council meeting, prompting the residents to complain that the city has kept them in the dark.
“There’s a total lack of information on this project and has been for months,” McPeak said.
McPeak later said that he intends to file an Open Public Records Act request with the city to obtain copies of A.E. Stone’s bills.
Some members of Council said the city should improve its communications with the residents about the project. Councilwoman Karen Bergman suggested posting weekly updates on the city website to keep neighbors informed.
Barr and Councilman Keith Hartzell met with some of the residents last Saturday to inspect the construction work.
Hartzell said the neighbors have every right to be frustrated with the project, but noted that the work finally appears to be picking up. He said some residents remain “unhappy,” but others told him on Saturday that they appreciated the amount of construction that has been completed recently.
“There’s a marked improvement in the last two weeks,” Hartzell said.
The mayor, sounding less satisfied than Hartzell, said that “we’re doing a little better.”