By Donald Wittkowski
City Council gave final approval Thursday night to three ordinances that include major parts of Ocean City’s affordable housing program.
More ordinances are still to come as the city works out the details for fulfilling a state constitutional mandate to provide its “fair share” of affordable housing for residents having low or moderate incomes.
The ordinances adopted Thursday incorporate elements of a legal settlement, approved by the courts last August, laying out the city’s affordable housing plan through 2025.
Like other towns and cities, Ocean City must comply with the state’s Fair Housing Act of 1985, as well as the landmark Mount Laurel court doctrine requiring New Jersey municipalities to provide their “fair share” of affordable housing.
In Ocean City’s case, a scarcity of developable land in the beach resort makes it highly unlikely it will ever be able to fulfill its affordable housing requirements, City Council members have pointed out.
“We have no open land,” City Solicitor Dorothy McCrosson said in an interview after the Council meeting.
McCrosson explained that the city is required to build 13 units of affordable housing within the next two years. However, the city and the Ocean City Housing Authority have a total obligation of 107 units through 2025, she said.
Although it will be in the millions, it is still not clear exactly how much the housing program will cost the city because different sources of public and private funding are expected to finance the plan, including money from the Ocean City Housing Authority.
“It’s very difficult to say what this is going to cost,” McCrosson said in the interview.
The housing authority plans to build 94 units of affordable housing to help Ocean City satisfy its obligations. Most of the units would be concentrated at the authority’s Bayview Manor and Pecks Beach Village housing developments.
With the city’s financial help, the authority is working on plans to build 32 new units of affordable housing for senior citizens at the Bayview Manor location at Sixth Street and West Avenue.
Costing an estimated $6.2 million, the project will replace 20 units of senior-citizen housing that would be lost when the agency demolishes the flood-prone section of Pecks Beach Village on Fourth Street.
The city’s Planning Board gave its approval Wednesday night for the 32-unit project, which was pared down from the original plan of 34 units.
The city plans to hold a town hall meeting in the future to give the public a full presentation on the affordable housing program. A date has not yet been announced.
Voting 5-0, with Councilmen Keith Hartzell and Tony Wilson absent from Thursday’s meeting, the governing body approved three ordinances containing key pieces of the housing plan.
One of them specifies that city-sponsored affordable housing is a “permitted use” in every zone in town, McCrosson said.
Wherever affordable housing is built in Ocean City, “the design will have to be consistent with the surrounding neighborhood,” McCrosson explained last month when Council introduced the plan.
Using criteria from the court settlement, another ordinance spells out who will qualify for affordable housing and how they will be screened.
The city’s plan also includes having private developers help to finance affordable housing. Another ordinance increases the city’s existing development fee for residential construction from 1 percent to 1.5 percent, with the money going into a trust fund for affordable housing.
At a later date, Council is expected to consider other ordinances that contain more elements of the affordable housing program.
In other business Thursday, Council approved an ordinance that repeals the term limits for the volunteers who serve on the city’s boards, authorities and commissions. Faced with a shortage of volunteers, the city hopes to retain the board members it already has, especially those who have the experience or special qualifications to handle complex issues.
“To me, that’s a shame and a loss for our boards,” Councilwoman Karen Bergman said of when qualified members are forced to step down when their terms expire.
The ordinance includes a three-year sunset provision that takes effect in 2021. The sunset provision will act as a “safety valve” that allows the city to revisit the issue in 2021 to see if repealing the term limits has worked, said Councilman Michael DeVlieger, who proposed the provision.
Councilman Antwan McClellan noted that Council retains the power to change the ordinance at any time if it is not working, instead of waiting for the three-year sunset provision to kick in.
The shortage of board members has become so serious that some of the city’s advisory commissions have had to dramatically reduce the number of meetings they hold.
Councilman Bob Barr said the Utility Advisory Commission, which oversees electric, gas, water, sewer and cable television service, has cut down from 12 to six meetings annually. At one point, the utility commission had only one meeting for an entire year, he added.
Dave Hayes, president of the government watchdog group Fairness In Taxes, said he understood the challenges the city faces in recruiting and retaining enough qualified board members. But he also questioned whether repealing the term limits would discourage “new blood and new people from coming on board.”
Ocean City has a series of boards, authorities and commissions that oversee everything from zoning, planning, the municipal airport, public housing, the library, tourism and other areas of local government.
Also Thursday, Council and Mayor Jay Gillian celebrated the retirement of Fire Department Capt. Gary Green by reading a proclamation honoring him for his 35 years of service.
Green, 55, comes from a family of Ocean City firefighters, including his 85-year-old father, Willard Green, who served for 41 years before he retired at the rank of deputy chief.
“My family, in particular, always thought it was an honor,” Willard Green told the mayor and Council of the family’s long service for Ocean City.
Altogether, the Green family compiled 220 years of public service in the city. Gillian said the Greens have embodied the high level of dedication and commitment shown by members of the Fire Department over the years while protecting the city.