By DONALD WITTKOWSKI
Ocean City is kicking in more money to complete the acquisition of three adjacent pieces of property that would be combined to create a large swath of open space protected from housing development.
City Council introduced three bond ordinances Thursday night that will 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 bond ordinances introduced Thursday will increase the total amount that the city is offering to pay for the parcels to about $12.5 million.
“This is the amount we believe the property is worth,” City Solicitor Dorothy McCrosson told the Council members during the meeting, which was held by Zoom and teleconference amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Once final approval is given by Council for the bond ordinances, which is expected to happen on Dec. 3, the city will deposit the money with the state Superior Court to pay for the land, McCrosson said. That is expected to occur in about a month. 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 in about a month, it still must litigate the final amount it will pay the owners. The court could decide the property is worth more than the $12.5 million that the city is offering, McCrosson explained.
The city is adding an extra $615,000 to the purchase price to reflect the most recent property appraisals, McCrosson said.
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.
Gillian 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.
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.
In other business at Thursday’s meeting, Council gave final approval to a $1.1 million bond ordinance to pay for architectural design services for Ocean City’s proposed $35 million public safety building.
The city will work with an architect to design the building’s exterior and interior features and also nail down the development cost. The $35 million price tag is only a preliminary figure at this point, city officials say.
Construction on the project is expected to begin in the fall of 2021 and would take about 18 months to complete. A series of preliminary steps must first be taken, including finalizing the architectural designs and hiring the construction contractor through the public bidding process.
The new public safety building would combine Ocean City’s police, fire, emergency management, emergency dispatch and municipal court operations all in one complex. It would occupy most of the block bordered by Asbury and West avenues between Fifth and Sixth streets – the same location currently used for the fire department’s headquarters.
The existing fire department headquarters at 550 Asbury Ave. would be demolished to create space for the public safety building. In addition, the city plans to tear down the existing police department headquarters at Eighth Street and Central Avenue for downtown parking.
Gillian said the existing public safety building, which dates to 1890, and the fire department’s headquarters, built in 1983, are simply too outdated to handle the technological demands and complexities of modern police and fire operations.
Frank Donato, the city’s chief financial officer, said the public safety building would result in only a small increase in local property taxes and would not cause any other projects in the city’s capital plan to be “sacrificed.”
The city is planning to hold a virtual town hall meeting on Dec. 5 to discuss plans for a series of dredging, road, drainage and flood-mitigation projects. Gillian said city officials will outline the cost, timeframe and the order of priority for those projects during the meeting.
Also at Thursday’s meeting, Gillian said members of his administration will be working with school officials to resolve internet connection problems that have prevented the school district from launching livestream instruction for students during the pandemic.
“We’re going to get our IT team together with their team and we’re going to start communicating tomorrow as fast as we can on solving the issue,” Gillian said. “We’ve heard the public. We’ve listened to everybody. At the end of the day, we’ve got to make sure that we work together, and that’s what we’re going to start doing tomorrow.”
Gillian said he plans to speak Friday with Superintendent of Schools Dr. Kathleen Taylor for an update. Members of Council stressed that they are also staying on top of the issue to make sure students are getting the best opportunities to learn through livestreaming.
“We will do all that we can for our children. We know how important it is, we do,” City Council President Bob Barr said.
Barr noted that he has already talked to Board of Education President Joseph Clark about the livestreaming problems. He said Clark has pledged that the district will improve its communications with parents and school staff in “coming days.”
Ocean City’s schools are using a hybrid teaching model during the pandemic that combines virtual learning with in-class instruction. Concurrent learning is where the school district has the ability to livestream the classes. Neighboring school districts have it.
Parents want the same in the Ocean City district for the students who participate in the district’s Virtual Academy and even for those in hybrid learning for remote days. This would allow the students to be able to interact with the teachers and their peers from home.
Parents say it could improve their children’s ability to learn amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Ashley Madden, whose four children attend the Ocean City schools, appealed to City Council on Thursday night to help parents and teachers get livestreaming for their children and students.
“If you haven’t heard already, our children are struggling,” she said.
Ashley Madden, who is the wife of City Councilman Peter Madden, said the parents she has spoken to are anxious to have their children return to school.
“The children are not getting the instruction or the mental health support that they need,” she said.
Livestreaming would help them to learn from home while they are out of the classroom, she pointed out.
“The livestreaming will at least stop the bleeding at this point,” she said.
Two other residents who participated in Council’s Zoom meeting expressed their support for Ashley Madden’s comments.
Curt Nath, director of academic services for the school district, gave a presentation during Wednesday’s Board of Education meeting detailing why the district has not been able to offer livestreaming.
Specifically, Nath noted that there are connectivity problems due to the internet service provider, Comcast. It is something that the school district is continually looking at and hoping will improve in the future so that livestreaming could be offered to the students, Nath said.
The parents said during the school board meeting that their children are falling behind, failing and are not engaged due to the current teaching model. The agreement among parents who spoke during the board meeting was that livestreaming is needed.