By DONALD WITTKOWSKI
Frustrated homeowners in a bayside Ocean City neighborhood vented their anger over a series of projects that have turned their community into an active construction zone, but were assured by Mayor Jay Gillian that “we’re going to fix it.”
Gillian and other Ocean City officials listened to some harsh criticism during an hour-long meeting Saturday morning with about 60 homeowners on West 17th Street, although the tone became more conciliatory by the end.
Third Ward Councilman Jody Levchuk, who represents West 17th Street, organized the meeting after he received complaints from residents about the construction. Council members Terry Crowley Jr. and Tom Rotondi also were at the meeting, but did not speak.
“We want to do the best job we can for you,” Levchuk told the homeowners while promising that the city will be responsive to their concerns.
The meeting was held outdoors, adjacent to a giant excavator, pipes, construction fencing and two pumping stations that are the first things residents and visitors see as they enter the West 17th Street neighborhood over a tiny bridge.
Homeowners bluntly called the pumping stations ugly. They urged Gillian and the other city officials to consider disguising the bigger pumping station as a fake lighthouse to try to make it somewhat more attractive.
“Now, when I drive around on this roadway, I’m going to look at the ugliest pumping station man has ever built,” said Steve Moppert, a homeowner on West 17th Street since 1980.
“That is totally unacceptable,” Moppert added.
West 17th Street is an enclave of mostly upscale bayfront homes accessible by crossing a tiny bridge off Bay Avenue. The neighborhood, essentially a narrow island jutting out into the back bay, is vulnerable to tidal flooding because of its location and the low-lying topography.
Hoping to reduce the chronic flooding, Ocean City has started construction on a nearly $1.5 million project that will include a stormwater pumping station, new drainage and outfall pipes, elevating the road where possible, repaving and landscaping improvements.
The centerpiece of the project is the pumping station to clear flooding from the neighborhood much faster than waiting for the water to recede by itself back into the bay. Ocean City has been installing pumping stations throughout the island in recent years to fight flooding.
City Business Administrator George Savastano told the West 17th Street homeowners that the city’s stormwater pumping station will be relatively small and will be concealed by landscaping when it is finished.
Separately, the New Jersey American Water company is undertaking a $3 million modernization of its water and sewer system on West 17th Street. The current water and sewer system dates to the 1950s.
As part of the New Jersey American Water project, the company is building a wastewater pumping station that dominates the entryway into West 17th Street. The large pumping station includes stairs leading up to metal boxes that contain the control panels.
The homeowners repeatedly expressed fears about the possibility of foul odors emanating from the wastewater pumping station. Karen Dardine equated the pumping station to having “a toilet” outside her home.
“It’s a total disregard for the residents of the neighborhood. I don’t think all options were explored for not making it an eyesore,” Warren Dardine, Karen’s husband, said in an interview.
During the meeting, homeowners also criticized an architectural rendering that New Jersey American Water had drawn up that depicts a much smaller wastewater pumping station, hidden by trees and shrubbery, to minimize its presence in the residential neighborhood.
One homeowner, Pete Salamon, accused New Jersey American Water of pulling a “bait and switch” by giving the neighbors the initial impression the company would build a much smaller wastewater pumping station.
New Jersey American Water did not have a representative at the neighborhood meeting, Gillian said.
Gillian, Levchuk and other city officials expressed their sympathy for the residents. At the same time, they stressed the complexity of having multiple construction projects being done simultaneously by the city and by private utilities. Water and natural gas improvements are also part of the construction projects along West 17th Street.
Vince Bekier, director of the city’s Operations and Engineering Department, explained that the city wants to work cooperatively with the utility companies, but does not have the power to order changes with their scope of the work.
“We can’t force them to do anything,” Bekier told the residents.
However, Gillian stressed that he understands that homeowners are suffering from “construction fatigue.”
He pledged that the city would work closely with residents to address their complaints and is committed to making changes in the project whenever possible so “it will look good.”
“We’re going to fix it and make it right,” Gillian said.
He added, “We’re going to make it look good, because aesthetics are very important to me.”
Gillian also said he and other city officials will welcome suggestions from residents. He urged the homeowners to establish a committee or spokesperson to serve as a liaison with city officials as the project moves along.
“I hear you. I will listen to you,” Gillian said.
Meanwhile, construction will continue through the spring and then the roadway will be temporarily restored for the summer. Landscaping is also planned to make the construction area more attractive, Gillian said.
No construction work will be done from Memorial Day to Labor Day to avoid disruptions during the busy summer tourism season, city officials said.
According to a timetable released earlier by the city, pipe and pump station work will be completed and final paving will take place after this summer and be finished before summer 2024.
“When we’re done, it’s going to be first class. That I can guarantee,” Gillian said.