July 13, 2005

More problems for Wildwood motels

Staff Writer
WILDWOOD – Parking has been an issue for Will LaForge since he bought the 50-year-old Windward Motel 19 years ago. The motel has 23 rooms and only 16 parking spots. LaForge attributes the shortage to changing times.
“Building codes then are not what they are now,” he said.
The lack of parking has never affected the success of his business, however. He was always able to lease spots on the Bennett Avenue lot – first from Wildwood’s Parking Authority and later from GWTIDA..
That changed in December, when motel owners were notified by GWTIDA that parking spots on the Bennett Avenue parking lot would no longer be available to lease for the season.
“There was an established practice in place with over 20 years of history,” LaForge said. Motel owners paid an annual fee and spots were reserved for their customers with color- coded concrete bumpers.
For the first 15 years, they rented spaces from the Wildwoods Parking Authority for $200 per spot, per season. That changed in 1999, when former Mayor Duane Sloan ceded the city’s parking lots to the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority (NJSEA) for 99 years as part of the Omnibus Agreement for the construction of the new convention center.
LaForge and other motel owners met with Sloan to discuss their concerns over the new agreement.
“We were told to take it on the chin,” LaForge said. “It was for the betterment of the Wildwoods.”
At that time, Carl Aspenberg was leasing an entire lot from the city for his customers at the Rio Motel at Rio Grande and Ocean avenues. Al Brannen leased 30 spaces for his customers at the Ocean Crest Lodge Motel on Bennett Avenue, and several other motels leased up to 80 additional spots from the parking authority. LaForge leased seven.
Sloan wrote a letter to NJSEA President Richard Wolfe requesting a “five-year window” for motel owners to make other parking arrangements.
On Feb. 18, 2000, he wrote, “None of the owners believe they have an inherent right to lease these parking spaces long term, however I believe it is good business and good public relations to work with these owners in order to eliminate what could potentially be a devastating situation for them.”
LaForge was told by GWTIDA that the reserved spots might not be available some day. The price went up to $500, but for five years, they had always been willing to negotiate a deal.
Al Brannen said his decision to demolish his motel and build condos was largely due the precariousness of his parking situation.
“We went back and forth for four or five years trying to get a longer lease,” he said. “We really didn’t want to tear our motel down but we had no choice.”
Aspenberg said the parking situation was a factor in his decision to sell the Rio, as well. It will be demolished this month and the 25-story Nouveau Wave hotel will be built in its place.
Brannen said he told GWTIDA he was basing his business decision on GWTIDA’s decision about leasing the lots.
“We said, if you are not leasing the spots past that date, fine. We are basing our business decision on your decision. If you lease the spots past that date, we’ll sue,” Brannen said. “We were not trying to hurt other motel owners.”
LaForge believes Brannen’s threat of litigation is the reason GWTIDA refused to stick with the status quo.
Motel owners brought their concerns to Mayor Ernie Troiano, hoping the city could intervene in the situation on their behalf.
“GWTIDA was willing to help if they could,” Troiano said, “but when threatened with a lawsuit they have to do what they have to do to keep the city out of a lawsuit.”
Motel owners met Troiano and GWTIDA Executive Director John Siciliano to try to work out a solution. Siciliano said that the 2002 lease agreement for parking was extended to 2004, but motel owners were told to make other arrangements for 2005.
“We are trying to work with them to help alleviate the problem,” Siciliano said.
GWTIDA has agreed to offer parking on a daily basis for no more that $20 a day based on a rate set in the morning. Customers could leave the lot and be readmitted within 24 hours by showing a receipt. This offer is open to the public as well, Siciliano said. LaForge said that arrangement would cost him about $10,000.
Besides the additional expense, the per diem offer is based on availability. If a customer leaves the lot, there is no guarantee a spot will be available when they return.
“Ideally the hotelier is looking for some kind of guarantee,” Siciliano said. “This is a system that should work most of the time but I guess it’s not the best solution from their standpoint.”
He also indicated the “method” of renting the spots changed to avoid potential litigation, but the reason NJSEA acquired the city’s lots six years ago was because they foresaw a need for parking for convention center events.
“We are doing more and more events every year,” Siciliano said. “We just completed major repairs and renovations in our parking lot because we need parking.”
He promised to continue working with the motel owners to find a situation that they can all be comfortable with.
Meanwhile motel owners cross their fingers on the weekends, hoping they can provide their customers with a parking spot.
A front desk clerk at one motel affected by the parking shortage called the logistics of the parking situation “a nightmare.” LaForge said he has lost customers because of the parking problem.
“That’s the vulnerability that we find ourselves in,” he said.
A number of interested people have approached LaForge about buying the Windward.
“I have a five-block ocean view,” he said. ”If the right opportunity comes along, it’s a good time to sell.”
“Wildwood is at the beginning of a new cycle,” Brannen said. “I’d like to be a part of it as a motel owner, but nobody knows if they have a place in Wildwood today.”

Maureen L. Cawley can be e-mailed at maureen.cawley@catamaranmedia.com or you can comment on this story by calling 624-8900, ext. 250.

July 06, 2005

Grand plan slammed at CAFRA hearing

Staff Writer
LOWER TOWNSHIP – The crowd at the Lower Township Municipal Building last week was literally split down the middle on a proposal to construct a 14-story, 125-unit condominium development at the Grand Hotel site in Diamond Beach.
On the left were Diamond Beach and Wildwood Crest residents who were there to tell CAFRA project manager Gail Moore they opposed the scale of the development. On the right was developer Eustace Mita of Achristavest, LLC, his Attorney Frank Corrado and a group of local Realtors, developers and others who hope CAFRA approves the project.
“We are here mostly to listen,” Corrado told Moore. “For now I’d like to hear what the public has to say.”
No decision was made Wednesday, June 29, nor was one expected. Those interested still have about two weeks to submit written comments on the plan.
First to speak was Gregory Boris, a resident of Diamond View Condominiums, adjacent to the Grand Hotel. He approached the microphone carrying a 2-foot ceramic fisherman in a yellow rain coat.
“I call him Mr. Diamond View,” he said.
Boris, who is 6-foot-4, placed the figure on the floor beside him.
“This is the size of our condominium complex,” he said, pointing down at the statue, “and I am the size of the Grand project.”
Boris indicated that the bottom of the fisherman’s raincoat represented the approximate height of the many two-story, single family residences in his neighborhood.
Residents of Diamond Beach can shake hands over the fence with their neighbors in Wildwood Crest, but they are under the jurisdiction of Lower Township, whose government and services are situated several miles away, across two bridges on Route 621.
Lower Township’s zoning board approved the developer’s application for variances allowing the building to exceed the existing eight-story height limit. An ordinance is currently pending extending the allowable height in the zone to 12 stories.
“Those who sat on the zoning board do not live on our island or in our community,” Crest resident Tina Ziccardi said.
Crest resident Vincent DeRienzo said the building would worsen traffic in his already congested neighborhood. He was also concerned about water pressure and fire safety.
“We have no fire apparatus to reach 12 stories,” he said.
Crest Commissioner Joyce Gould submitted a resolution from Crest commissioners opposing the project on the grounds that it “directly abuts municipal boundary lines” and is “inappropriate for (the) current land use area.”
She asked Moore to view a video segment from ABC’s Good Morning America that reported that fire companies need to arrive on a fire scene in six minutes to “get ahead of a fire” and save lives. Members of the public reported at the meeting that it takes the Erma Fire Company in Lower Township 15 to 20 minutes to arrive in Diamond Beach. Residents are concerned the increased height adds increased risk.
“The Erma Fire Company will never get to Diamond Beach in six minutes,” Gould said.
Lower Township Mayor Walter Craig told Moore he had a dual-perspective because he grew up in Wildwood Crest. He said he believes the proposed plan fits into its surroundings.
“It is nothing more than what’s going on the entire island,” he said.
Craig said he was there to represent the 25,000 residents of Lower Township, and that most of them supported the plan.
Members of the audience booed the mayor as he spoke, and shouted, “Secede! Secession!”
After the meeting, Craig said some of the comments said to his face were enough for him to ask a police officer to step into the meeting. He said members of the public had every right to be heard, but that they did not have a right to abuse others.
Developer Eustace Mita indicated that he had come to the meeting prepared to speak to concerned Lower Township residents, but that only about three were there. He then addressed his response to residents of the Crest. He assured them that the building would be “the safest in New Jersey,” and that fire safety would not be an issue.
“I am embarrassed at the way the mayor was treated here today,” he told the crowd.
Realtor Brad Vodges said he grew up about four blocks from the Grand Hotel and compared the recent development in the area to the Diamond Beach of his youth.
“Seaview Avenue was a dead end then. I am totally in favor of this project. People are scared of change,” he said.
Phillip Eizman owns property on Raleigh Avenue. He supports the project, too. He said when he bought in Diamond Beach it was as an investment.
“I looked at the property for what it might be worth some day,” he said. “I knew sooner or later something had to be done at The Grand.”
Rick Tomasso is a builder who owns property near The Grand site.
“I am not against building. It’s a great idea to fix up the Grand Hotel,” he said.
But Tomasso is concerned that the new height will set a precedent and change the “whole look” of the surrounding neighborhood. He called the proposal for 12 stories “drastic.”
“I don’t want to come down here to walk down the streets of New York City,” he said. “(The people that support this) are not excited about the look of Diamond Beach. They are excited about money. Be careful what you do with your greed. They’ll be no going back.”
Paul Chiolo, of Oceanside Realty, plans on submitting a written statement to CAFRA in support of the project.
“What I didn’t get here was that it was the same people (who opposed the project) today that have complained about The Grand site for five or six years,” he said. He indicated that standing water, litter on the beach and problems with The Grand’s customers were often sited as issues at the hotel.
“This is the only solution. Progress is going to alleviate those problems,” he said.
“We are not opposed to this project,” Crest resident Kathy Popper-Byron said. “We are opposed to the size of this project. We want it to conform to our neighborhood, our style of living.”
Popper-Byron appealed to the developer to come up with a more moderate proposal.
“Eating and drinking should be done in moderation. Building should be done in moderation,” she said. “The beach and the environment are not a rubber band that can accommodate overindulgence.”
Corrado told Moore he believes the project “uniquely suited” to the resort development in Diamond Beach and the Crest.
“We believe it is a CAFRA-compliant project,” he said.
More said that CAFRA will consider written comment on the project until Thursday, July 14. Comments can be sent to: Gail J. Moore, Project Manger, Land Use Regulation Program, P.O. Box 439, Trenton, 08625.

Maureen L. Cawley can be e-mailed at maureen.cawley@catamaranmedia.com or you can comment on this story by calling 624-8900, ext. 250.