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Site of the North End project, looking north toward Asbury Park. Photo by Paul Goldfinger

By Charles Layton, Editor @Blogfinger

Committeewoman Mary Beth Jahn’s recent victory in the Democratic primary has made one thing clear. The Township is more likely now than ever before to try to restrict the building of condos at the North End.

Although Neptune Township previously approved a plan that would allow for between 70 and 80 new condos along Wesley Lake near the boardwalk, Jahn told the Ocean Grove Home Owners Association on Saturday that the plan might now be scaled back dramatically.

Many of the members seemed elated when Jahn spoke of “the condos [the developers] think they’re going to build,” and then added, “I think they are going to build 12 single-family homes.”

Ever since the Township Committee formally approved a redevelopment plan in 2008, many Ocean Grovers have regretted and feared its implementation, an opinion Jahn has shared. At the time, she called the plan “a travesty” and a detriment to the quality of life of OG residents. Now that she is all but assured of reelection in November, Jahn is predicting that the plan could be changed during negotiations between the developers and the Township Committee. Jahn and Mayor Randy Bishop are the Township Committee’s designated negotiators in those talks.

Jahn’s opponent in the primary election, Nick Williams, never took a public position on the North End Project. However, Williams’ supporter and campaign manager, James Manning Jr., is a long-time proponent of heavy condo development as part of the North End project. Had Williams unseated Jahn on the Township Committee, he could have altered the balance of power in the government and undone efforts by Jahn and Bishop to prevent an overly-massive development.

The North End redevelopment plan, as presently written, would allow for up to 85 residential units, most of them condos, plus a hotel with a maximum of 80 rooms. The developers are the Camp Meeting Association, which owns the 5.6-acre site, and a company run by Ocean Grove developer William Gannon.

But before construction can begin, the developers and the Township must sign a contract spelling out the details much more specifically. Jahn told the Home Owners that the Township holds considerable power over the final shape of that deal. “Plans change,” she said. “We’re going to go through probably ten or twelve versions of this redevelopment [plan].” Financing, feasibility and other considerations may force the plan to change, she said.

One crucial issue is whether it will be possible to build the large underground parking garage called for in the plan. Because the site is beside the ocean and a lake, there is serious doubt as to how deep it will be possible for the developers to excavate. Without the off-street parking for the condos, the Township might be in a position to force the developers to scale back or even entirely give up their condo plans. Or so it seemed from Jahn’s remarks.

She also predicted that the financing of a luxury hotel at the site might be difficult in today’s market, especially given that the hotel would not have a liquor license. She said she had heard that the hotel portion of the project alone could cost between $30 million and $50 million.

Another “sticking point” in the upcoming negotiations will be a traffic study, Jahn said. Before any construction begins, she and Bishop want the developers to conduct a study of the impact on traffic in Ocean Grove during peak periods, such as the 4th of July weekend.

She also cautioned that the developers would have to find acceptable ways to bring in supplies to the construction site and to situate heavy equipment within the confines of that area. She also said the developers would be required to rebuild the portion of the Wesley Lake retaining wall along the northern edge of the site.

These are all issues the Home Owners Association’s own north end committee has raised in the recent past.

Although negotiations between the developers and the Township have been stalled since an initial meeting in February of 2011, Jahn said the developers are now saying they want to resume those talks.

For a refresher course on the North End project, go here and here.

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By Charles Layton

It looks as though, over the next couple of years, Asbury Park will resume construction of new beachfront townhouses and condominiums. But it will proceed more slowly and carefully this time to avoid the calamities that resulted from its fast-track development plans of the past.

There is a lesson here for Ocean Grove, as negotiations proceed over our own North End hotel/residential redevelopment plan.

Asbury Park had soaring ambitions in 2002 when it set out to revive its beachfront area. It drew up a $1.25 billion redevelopment plan that was to include 3,100 new residential units, mostly condos. But then, in the midst of construction, the housing market crashed. The Esperanza, a high-rise project that was to contain 224 luxury units next to the beachfront, was abandoned by its developer and foreclosed upon by its lender due to lack of sales. Wesley Grove, another condo project just across from Ocean Grove, also fell flat in the market. The developer only completed one of four planned phases, leaving a forest of unsightly wooden stumps in an open field where the rest of the homes would have been.

Last December, the City of Asbury Park took its master developer to court, accusing the developer of defaulting on its obligations. And three weeks ago an arbitrator ruled that the developer was not responsible for most of the delays and failures the city had cited. Instead, he declared, the primary failure was the city’s own fast-track plan, which was at odds with housing market reality.

“The market conditions in the United States, including New Jersey, during this time period were, and continue to be, extremely poor,” the arbitrator, retired federal judge Nicholas Politan, wrote. “Testimony elicited at the hearing supports the fact that there exists a housing market catastrophe. This is particularly true in areas primarily geared to seasonal and second home development.”

(Every realtor in Ocean Grove would probably say “amen” to that.)

And so, rather than allow the city to acquire a new master developer and plunge headlong, as before, Politan prescribed a more modest and prudent course. He ordered the developer to deliver plans this month for a new project – 28 townhouses at Asbury Avenue and Kingsley Street – and to complete those homes within about a year and a half. Once 50 percent of those units are sold, the developer could begin building 168 more units at Munroe and Cookman. Until 50 percent of those are sold, other proposed housing projects in the oceanfront redevelopment area would remain on hold.

How does all this affect Ocean Grove’s North End? Well, in the first place, besides a hotel, the North End plan includes as many as 85 residences, most of them condominiums. In the second place, as Politan says, the catastrophically bad housing market continues. And in the third place, the additional residences likely to come on line in Asbury, right across Wesley Lake from the North End, will be added competition for the North End condos — and in an already glutted market.

Last month, the Ocean Grove Home Owners Association approved a list of  suggestions for Neptune Township to consider as it negotiates a final agreement with the North End developers. One of its suggestions is a timetable somewhat like the one Politan is imposing on the Asbury Park developers. The HOA suggests that each block of condos should be 75 percent sold before the next block is started, “to insure no empty partially constructed structures.”

The wisdom of this suggestion is obvious.

A victim of the housing market, The Esperanza in Asbury was never finished. Photo by Mary Walton

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By Charles Layton

By a voice vote, with no nays, the Ocean Grove Home Owners Association approved a North End resolution Saturday containing a long list of suggestions aimed at easing the project’s inconvenience for Ocean Grovers.

The North End Redevelopment promises to be the most massive building project in Ocean Grove for many decades. As presently planned, it calls for a maximum of 80 hotel rooms and a maximum of 85 residences, mainly condos with a few single-family homes.

The Township Committee has already enacted an ordinance describing the project’s outlines, but now the Committee must negotiate with the developers on a much more detailed agreement, which also is to be enacted into law.

The HOA’s list of suggestions will be passed along to the Township’s negotiators, who are Committeeman Randy Bishop and Committeewoman Mary Beth Jahn.

In general, the HOA hopes to mitigate the adverse impact of the project on the lives of Ocean Grovers both during construction and thereafter. The organization’s proposals therefore emphasize the need to prevent parking and traffic problems as a result of the increase in density at the North End.

The proposal also calls for a maximum of transparency, including publication on the Township’s website of all relevant findings and reports, especially those related to traffic, environmental impact and the nature of the water table at the site. (Problems with the water table could affect the developers’ ability to provide the necessary amount of underground parking.)

It also calls for public release of information relating to the developers’ financial ability to complete the project. It asks that the developers be made to build the complex in stages, beginning with the hotel, followed by the single-family homes and then the condo units. “Each block of condos must be 75% sold before other condos are started to insure no empty partially constructed structures,” the resolution says. These suggestions are intended to avoid the fate that befell Asbury Park when a developer began construction on a large condo project only to have the project fail financially, leaving a large, ugly skeleton of an unfinished building.

The HOA also asks that a swimming pool be included in the complex, with public access.

The developers of the North End are the Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association and a company headed by Ocean Grove contractors William and Paul Gannon. Other investors in the Gannon company are unknown, and the HOA resolution urges that the Township require that they be identified.

There has been no indication as to how long the Township/developer negotiations might take, or how long before construction begins.

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BACKGROUND —  Here are some basic facts about the North End Redevelopment Plan, as presently written. During negotiations, however, some of these details could change:

*Location: Between Spray Avenue and Wesley Lake, from the boardwalk west to Beach Avenue

*Elements: a hotel, condos, a few single family detached homes, townhouses, retail commercial space

*Maximum number of hotel rooms allowed: 80

*Maximum number of residences of all types: 85

*Off-street parking requirements: one space per hotel room; approximately two spaces per condo unit (in compliance with state RSIS standards); one space for each 300 square feet of banquet, conference or restaurant space in the hotel.

*Other parking requirements: Off-street parking for the hotel and residential structures must be below ground and sheltered from street view, although the below-ground lot or lots may rise a maximum of 3.5 feet above street level. A maximum of 20 surface parking spaces are permitted for loading, valet and pickup/drop-off, provided these spaces are screened from public view. Any existing on-street parking spaces eliminated due to the development must be compensated for with additional on-site spaces.

*Height limitations: Hotel no higher than 65 feet. Condo buildings no higher than 48 feet.

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By Charles Layton

For the past two weeks, people on this blog have been discussing the interrelated topics of parking, New Jersey land use law, and the conversion of old hotels into condominiums (a trend many of you deplore).

I think I speak for everyone when I say that this stuff is too thorny for amateurs. Most of us haven’t followed the history of zoning, and we don’t know the jargon — RSIS regulations, special area standards — yikes!

Yet, when Kevin Chambers claims, as he did in a posting on January 31, that what Neptune has been doing – letting condos be built with no provision for parking — violates the law, it is our burden as citizens to try to understand what he means.

So I’ve spent the past two days poring over the scores of comments published here, and I’ve also read most of the key documents people have referred to.

If you’ll bear with me, I’ll try to lay out, as simply as possible, what I think it adds up to. Please excuse some of the bureaucratic gobbledygook.  And please, also, understand that I’m no expert; take this with a grain of salt.

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Here is the history:

On June 3, 1997, New Jersey gave birth to a body of land use law called Residential Site Improvement Standards. That mouthful is usually shortened to RSIS. These standards deal with sewers, storm water, streets and the like. And they establish rules for how much parking a builder must provide for condos, townhouses, single-family homes — all kinds of residences.

Neptune Township happens to have an ordinance especially for the Historic District of Ocean Grove that conflicts with these state rules. Our ordinance prohibits off-street parking requirements and driveways for new residences. The justification is mainly that driveways, curb cuts and garages erode the historic character of Ocean Grove. There were no cars when this town was founded, so its architecture and town plan made no provision for off-street parking. And if we monkey too much with the town plan, we might lose our Historic District status. It is also argued that Ocean Grove is unusually compact (at least 24 units per acre in most parts of town) and its lots are unusually small (30 feet in width). The argument is that a driveway curb cut severely limits the amount of on-street parking, with the net effect of giving us less parking space overall. (While that argument works for single-family houses, it’s less persuasive when applied to a multi-unit condo development.)

On January 25, 2005, Neptune received a letter from the state Division of Codes and Standards pointing out the obvious — that our local ordinance violates the RSIS and is therefore legally invalid. However, the letter said Neptune could apply for special permission, in the form of what’s called a “special area standard.”

On October 26, 2007, Neptune did apply. It asked the New Jersey Site Improvement Advisory Board, which enforces RSIS, to let it retain its own separate regulations. Its application laid out all the arguments mentioned above.

On February 21, 2008 and again on September 18, 2008 the board held hearings on Neptune’s request.

On September 29, 2009, Neptune received a letter from the chairman of the board stating that there was insufficient evidence to justify a special standard for Ocean Grove. This letter reiterated that the Neptune ordinance was inconsistent with the RSIS and therefore invalid. However, the letter said the board was “willing to work with the Township” if it decided to submit a new or different request.

During all these years of negotiation, of course, quite a number of residences have been built in Ocean Grove, on Ocean Pathway and elsewhere. According to the RSIS law, those residences should have included off-street parking. But, because the buildings followed Neptune’s law rather than state law, no such parking was provided. In fact, by local law, the builders were forbidden to have off-street parking even if they’d wanted it.

How much off-street parking are we talking about? Well, under the RSIS standards, new condo developments must provide room for 1.8 off-street parking spaces for each one-bedroom unit, 2.0 spaces for each two-bedroom unit and 2.1 spaces for each three-bedroom unit. Obviously, the kind of density we’ve seen lately in Ocean Grove condos wouldn’t be possible had the condo builders been required to follow this legal standard. But because Ocean Grove builders continued to follow the local standard, they provided no parking at all, except for parking on the street.

A few Ocean Grovers, most notably Kevin Chambers, have been arguing for years that Neptune was in defiance of the law, and that the practice of allowing new condos without parking should be stopped. Chambers has made some enemies in the course of pressing this case.

But without judging whether all this condoization is good or bad, the historical record does seem to support Chambers’ claim that it’s illegal. And although nobody can now undo what’s already built, surely as citizens we could insist that all future condos provide off-street parking for their residents — unless the state changes its mind and gives Neptune some sort of exemption.

In conclusion, allow me to say that if Township officials, developers or others have a different perspective, or see errors in what’s written here, please give us the benefit of your knowledge. We are trying to feel our way forward on this issue. We are hungry for sound, detailed information. We will gladly correct anything that needs correcting.

Also, since the mother of all Ocean Grove condo projects is the proposed North End Redevelopment, we should point out in closing that the Township has provided, by law, that RSIS standards for off-street parking be followed in that case. That is to say, approximately two off-street parking spaces are required for each residential unit. In addition, the North End plan requires one off-street parking space for each hotel room. The North End is a special case because sites deemed to be “in need of redevelopment” fall outside the normal zoning process. It is the only such special case in Ocean Grove.

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