By DONALD WITTKOWSKI
A senior executive with Playland’s Castaway Cove urged city officials Thursday night to remove a Boardwalk ramp that is blocking construction deliveries for a rebuilding project at the popular amusement park.
Brian Hartley, Playland’s vice president, said deliveries of concrete, steel and lumber can’t be made at this time because the newly installed ramp at 10th Street has cut off access.
Hartley said he wants to meet with city officials to discuss the ramp and Playland’s plans for rebuilding an arcade building and the amusement park’s front entrance that were destroyed in an accidental fire last year.
“We just look forward to sitting down with someone to try to engage us and have a discussion,” he told City Council at its meeting Thursday.
Playland had been using an area on the south side of the amusement park’s location at 10th Street and the Boardwalk for construction deliveries of steel and concrete.
But this week, ahead of the busy Memorial Day weekend, city officials went ahead with reassembling a ramp in the area, essentially closing off access for heavy equipment to make deliveries to Playland.
City Business Administrator George Savastano explained to Council that the ramp is an important public access point and was put back up at the recommendation of the police department to make it safer for pedestrians heading to the Boardwalk.
Savastano and City Solicitor Dorothy McCrosson said the city has been waiting for a detailed delivery schedule and construction plan from Playland before it can begin discussions about possibly removing the ramp.
During his appearance at the Council meeting, Hartley gave city officials a copy of Playland’s construction and delivery schedule.
“We will work this out reasonably,” Savastano said while stressing that the city will not be rushed into making snap judgments that could affect public safety.
“We’re not in dire straits here. Steel is not coming tomorrow,” he added.
Savastano also noted that the ramp could be quickly removed if the city and Playland can come to an agreement to allow construction deliveries to safely resume.
“That ramp was put up in two days, and it can come down in two hours,” he said.
Some Council members, though, questioned whether the city’s administration headed by Mayor Jay Gillian was doing everything it could to aid a major business on the Boardwalk.
“That location is important not just to Playland, but that entire end of the Boardwalk,” Council President Bob Barr said.
Council Vice President Tom Rotondi said it is “vitally important” for Playland and other Boardwalk businesses that benefit from the amusement park for construction to resume.
“I think it’s inappropriate that we put that ramp back up,” Rotondi said of the city administration.
Playland is a competitor for Gillian’s Wonderland Pier, the Boardwalk amusement park on Sixth Street owned by the mayor. When asked by Council whether Playland was being treated differently than any other business needing the city’s help, Savastano and McCrosson repeatedly said that Gillian’s administration is willing to accommodate the amusement park.
“We bend over backwards to accommodate, and this is no exception,” Savastano said.
At one point, Savastano grew impatient with what he called Council’s attempts at “making a mountain out of a molehill.”
After the Council meeting, Rotondi said, “I asked the administration to open the access for one reason only: It is the right thing to do. After gathering as much information as I could from both sides, Playland and the administration, it doesn’t make sense why the mayor decided to do this now. I feel this is nothing more than political retribution. Ocean City is better than this.”
McCrosson said she has already spoken to Hartley and has simply been waiting for Playland to submit a detailed delivery schedule and construction plan to the city for the project.
“We expect this to be resolved very quickly, without any animosity,” McCrosson said.
Hartley said a delivery and construction schedule had been difficult to provide to the city because of supply-chain disruptions and delays caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
In place of the ramp, Playland has proposed a compromise that would include having pedestrians use a stairway at 10th Street to gain access to Boardwalk. Hartley said Playland would pay for the stairway, which would be similar to existing Boardwalk stairways at Eighth Street and 12th Street.
The stairway, in turn, would provide access to the Boardwalk for Playland’s construction deliveries.
If Playland is not able to reach an agreement with the city, Hartley warned that the amusement park may be forced to take down rides and possibly close early this summer to complete the work on the property for the summer of 2023.
“The choices are either have the ramp taken down so we can continue to have access or closing four or five rides – the merry-go-round, Double Shot and Buccaneer, definitely,” Hartley said in an interview with OCNJDaily.com. “We want access to the site for the heavy equipment or we could potentially have to close early this season and hope to get the work done for next summer.”
Playland continues to rebuild after an accidental fire broke out early in the morning on Jan. 30, 2021, destroying the arcade, the offices and the front entrance overlooking the Boardwalk, including the amusement park’s iconic pirate ship replica.
In other business at the Council meeting, Savastano reported that the city has agreed to pay its trash contractor an extra $770,000 to settle a financial dispute between both sides.
The payment is expected to result in a small tax increase in the city’s proposed $88.8 million municipal budget for 2022. Before the city and its waste-hauling firm, Gold Medal Environmental, came to agreement on the $770,000 payment, the budget had called for no tax increase.
Frank Donato, the city’s chief financial officer, and Leon Costello, the city’s auditor, said the tax increase will be slightly less than a penny on the tax rate. For the owner of a home assessed at $600,000, it will mean an extra $41.33 annually in local taxes.
A public hearing and final vote on the budget are scheduled for the June 9 Council meeting.
Rotondi pressed Savastano on whether the city’s administration knew that a tax increase would happen when negotiations first began with Gold Medal in March. Up until now, the Gillian administration had been saying that the proposed budget would not include a tax increase, Rotondi pointed out.
“No, we did not know there would be a tax increase,” Savastano responded.
Asserting that the administration should have been more transparent about a possible tax increase during the Gold Medal negotiations, Rotondi was the only Council member to vote against a resolution formalizing the new deal with the trash hauler.
Gold Medal has been under contract to provide trash and recycling pickups for Ocean City for the past four years at about $1.5 million annually. With less than a year remaining on a five-year contract, Gold Medal demanded that Ocean City pay an additional $1.4 million for the balance of 2022, the city said in a statement.
The company issued a news release April 29 stating that it would cease recycling pickups in Ocean City as of May 2, because it had been unable to reach an agreement with the city. Later, the city announced Gold Medal had agreed to honor its trash and recycling contract while negotiations continued to resolve the financial dispute.
In an interview Thursday, Gold Medal CEO Darren Gruendel said his company could no longer afford to continue to provide waste-hauling services at the price specified in its contract with Ocean City.
He said Gold Medal has experienced labor shortages, COVID-19 disruptions and a 300 percent increase in fuel costs since the pandemic began. In addition, Gold Medal sees its service hours in Ocean City soar by 400 percent to 500 percent during the busy summer tourism season, he said.
“So our negotiations led to the realization that the contracts needed to be renegotiated as soon as practical,” Gruendel said.
Greundel noted that he is happy that the contract has been renegotiated, although both sides encountered some “bumps in the road.”
“I knew this was going to be hard,” he said.
City officials, meanwhile, said Ocean City had no other choice but to negotiate a new deal with Gold Medal in light of the disruptions and higher costs that are shaking the trash industry during the pandemic.
“It’s a perfect storm of COVID and what’s going on in the world,” Councilman Terry Crowley Jr. said.
As part of the negotiations, the city’s contract with Gold Medal will now end on Dec. 31, 2022, instead of the previous date of Jan. 31, 2023. The city intends to seek new bids for the trash-hauling contract and plans to have a new company on board by Jan. 1, 2023.
Savastano warned that trash-hauling costs are expected to continue to rise dramatically through next year. Among possible money-saving options, the city will consider whether to collect the trash itself instead of hiring an outside contractor.
Barr predicted that the city is “going to get killed” when it goes out to bid for the next trash contract. He said the city will likely have to consider ways to raise revenue and impose cuts in the 2023 budget to help pay for higher waste-hauling costs – in addition to possibly starting its own trash collection service.
“We all have to share some pain with this to keep it under control,” Barr said.
Also at the meeting, Council approved a resolution stating its opposition to plans by an offshore wind farm developer to run an underground transmission line through Ocean City to connect with the land-based power grid.
Orsted, a Danish energy company that wants to build the wind farm, plans to run a transmission cable under the seabed and bring the electricity onshore through the cable at the beach lots of 35th Street.
The underground cable would travel west to Bay Avenue, north on Bay Avenue to Roosevelt Boulevard, west across Peck Bay at Roosevelt Boulevard Bridge and then continue on to Route 9 to property near the former B.L. England Generating Station in Upper Township.
Ocean City’s elected officials have been among the most ardent opponents of the wind farm. They fear it would harm tourism, real estate values, the commercial fishing industry, migratory birds and marine life.
They are also worried that the gigantic wind turbines that would pass by Ocean City 15 miles offshore would create a visual blight when viewed from land. Altogether, Orsted has proposed building 99 turbines from Atlantic City to Stone Harbor.
Former City Councilman Michael DeVlieger, an outspoken critic of the wind farm, handed a draft resolution to Council that outlined the reasons the city opposes Orsted’s proposed route for the transmission line. Council agreed to approve the resolution.
DeVlieger said the resolution is another way to ratchet up the pressure on Orsted as it goes through the regulatory process to obtain the government permits it will need to build the wind farm. Last week, DeVlieger was one of the opponents from Ocean City who spoke out against Orsted’s proposed transmission line during an online public hearing conducted by the state Board of Public Utilities.
“I think we need to be in their face and present at all of these events,” DeVlieger said of the public hearings about the wind farm.
In addition to the Council resolution, McCrosson has sent a lengthy letter to the Board of Public Utilities that details the city’s opposition to Orsted’s proposed route for the transmission line. Savastano read the letter out loud during Thursday’s meeting.
McCrosson wrote in the letter that the city wants Orsted to run the transmission line through the Great Egg Harbor Inlet instead of disturbing the environmentally sensitive beach areas, Green Acres restricted properties, and digging up the roads.
DeVlieger joined with the Council members in praising McCrosson’s letter. The resolution that DeVlieger crafted in opposition to the wind farm also proposed having Orsted consider running the transmission line through Great Egg Harbor Inlet.
McCrosson’s letter says that Orsted has failed to make “a convincing case” that 35th Street would be the best route for the transmission line. Orsted has stated that it prefers the 35th Street route because it would be less expensive than running the line through the inlet, city officials said.