November 30, 2005

Fire destroys their businesses, not their spirit

Staff Writer
WILDWOOD – The holiday parade was scheduled to pass the Zuccarello’s house on Central Avenue last Friday evening, bringing with it Santa Claus and a special gift, an engagement ring to be presented by Sal Zuccarello to Lauren Belasco.
“Sal had a whole thing planned,” his father, Anthony said, but the devastating fire that burned at the Shore Plaza, at 26th Avenue and the Boardwalk, changed those plans.
Instead of participating in the parade, fire trucks - festooned with strings of red and green lights - surrounded the family’s businesses - Sam’s Pizza and the Shore Plaza Motel. And fire fighters battled most of the weekend to bring the blaze under control.
The parade was cancelled, and Santa didn’t come on Friday night, but amid the chaos and uncertainty, the Sal and his fiancĂ©, buoyed by their family’s support, made a promise to look toward the future.
“I think it shows the resolve of the Zuccarello and Spera families,” said family friend John Lynch, who attended an impromptu gathering at the Zuccarello’s home on the night of the fire. People from the community stopped by throughout the evening to show support for the family, Lynch said, and to congratulate Sal and Lauren on their engagement.
Anthony Zuccarello said that his father-in-law and family patriarch, 77-year old Sam Spera, who purchased the family business at the Shore Plaza in 1979, had insisted that the couple move forward with their plans.
“Sam said we have to move on,” Zuccarello said. “I guess it gave us something good to focus on.”
“Out of a bad situation, there was something happy still,” Lynch said. “And you know what, it really says a lot about the family that with all they had to worry about, the only concern they had all night was with the safety of the firemen.”
The blaze burned for more than 24 hours, challenging at least 12 local fire companies to keep it under control, according to Wildwood mayor and fireman, Ernie Troiano.
“It was one of the toughest fires we had in a long time,” Troiano said. “It started in one little spot, and moved throughout the duct work quickly. It was a very stubborn fire.”
Lynch said that firemen that he spoke with told him the blaze was the toughest fire they had ever fought.
“And some of them had fought the fire at the Starlite Ballroom (in 1981),” he said.
Zuccarello said that initial investigations seemed to indicate that the fire started in the motor of a heater in a third floor motel unit on the west side of the building.
“We never expected it to spread the way it did,” he said.
But Troiano said that a combination of high winds and air moving through the duct work made it an unpredictable and seemingly endless fight.
In the end the building could not be saved.
“There were a couple incidents where the fire blew out. We were very lucky no one was seriously hurt.” Troiano said.
Throughout the two-day ordeal fire and rescue workers responded from Wildwood, North Wildwood, Wildwood Crest, West Wildwood, Cape May, West Cape May, Stone Harbor, Rio Grande, Green Creek, Town Bank, Erma, Ocean City, Upper Township, Belleplain and Petersburg. Several firefighters were treated for minor injuries on the scene in an emergency tent set up by AlantiCare and at Burdette Tomlin Hospital.
Troiano said he was touched by what he called “an unbelievable outpouring of support” from businesses and local residents, who brought food and hot beverages to fire fighters throughout the weekend. And Marty Shapiro opened up his arcade, Gateway 26, to cold and wet workers so they would have a place to warm up from the frigid temperatures.
Zuccarello said that he and his family were grateful for the support of the community and for the hard work of the over two hundred fire and rescue workers who battled the blaze.
“Everybody wants to help,” Zuccarello said.
On Sunday, when the fire had finally burned out, many of the fire companies who fought the blaze participated in the island’s rescheduled Christmas parade. As they passed the Zuccarello’s house on Central Avenue, they were greeted by a huge sign, thanking them for their efforts.
“We are so grateful,” Zuccarello said.
The family plans to rebuild Sam’s Pizza as quickly as possible, though they are still working out the details. Zuccarello said that he and his brother-in-law Tony Spero are in ongoing discussions on how to go about the project.
“We talk about what we can do to make the pizza place better when we redo it,” he said, but rebuilding both the pizza parlor and the motel will likely take years.
They are looking into getting the pizza place up and running and taking a longer-term approach to the motel property, which is run by Zuccarello’s wife Rosemary and his sister and brother-in-law, Rita and Steve Szczur.
“Sam wants to be open tomorrow,” Zuccarello said.
Troiano said the city will do what ever it can to expedite the permitting and approval process.
“We want to help,” he said.
Lynch, who works as the marketing director of the Wildwood’s Convention Center, wonders what he will do when Sam’s Pizza is not there for his daily lunch stop.
“It’s my hang out,” he said.
For him, as for so many local residents and visitors, the restaurant is an institution they have relied on for decades.
“It was just as much of a landmark as the Starlite Ballroom,” Lynch said. “It will be tough on the community, but this community is great at bouncing back.”
Zuccarello knows the people are counting on his family to rebuild.
“It’s a tradition, you know, like Santa Claus comes at Christmas,” he said.
And Santa did stop by the Zuccarellos this Christmas season. At the end of the rescheduled Christmas parade on Sunday, Santa made a stop to congratulate Sal and his fiancé on their engagement. He presented them with Christmas gifts from Lynch, photo albums of the night of their engagement and wishes for many happy new years.

Waypoint project shot down again

Staff Writer
WILDWOOD – After six months of deliberation and appeals, the zoning board again withheld approval for the 23-story Waypoint Beach Club project, which was proposed by developer Larry Howard to replace The Binns and Bonito motels on Ocean Avenue between Spenser and Spicer avenues. Submitted plans for the DooWop-style condotel included 185 residential units and 114 motel units, a five-story parking garage, a ballroom, retail space and restaurants.
The plans came before the board again on Monday, Nov. 28 after Howard’s attorney Stephan Nehmad appealed the board’s decision to withhold approval for the project, contending that board member, William Mitchell, had a conflict of interest.
Nehmad asked the board to discard Mitchell’s negative vote because his wife, Mary Mitchell, had spoken against the project at a public hearing in September.
The board voted unanimously to discard Mitchell’s vote and to vote on the project again.
In the mean time, two board members stepped down, and two more appointments were made. Paul Reidenbach’s request for a leave of absence was just accepted by commissioners on Wednesday, and alternate board member Dan Fleming, who had voted for the project in Sept. moved into his seat.
Architect, Todd Kieninger replaced Richard Osman in September. As a result, he was asked to listen to tapes of the testimony on the project so that he could participate in the re-vote.
Residents of Spencer Avenue attended Monday’s meeting with their attorney Brock Russell, though they were not permitted to testify.
Zoning board attorney William Kaufman said that no further testimony would be taken on the project.
“That is the chairman’s (Raymond McGrath) ruling,” he told Russell. “You and Mr. Nehmad had ample time to speak.”
Because of laws regarding zoning use variances, the seven member board needed to approve the project with a five vote majority. The project only received four of the necessary votes in September.
Variances were requested for height, building coverage, lot coverage, floor area ratio (density) and setbacks. The allowable building coverage in the hotel zone is 75 percent; the proposed Waypoint project covered 86.8 percent. The allowable lot coverage is 80 percent; the impervious surface on the proposed project was 89 percent.
The six board members who voted in September did not change their mind in the interim. Four board members: McGrath, Steve Lerario, Dennis Krause and Dan Fleming voted for the project. Dorothy Gannon reinstated her belief that the project needed too many variances.
“Somewhere along the line we need to comply with the ordinances,” she said.
Board member Elaine Biliris, who cast the deciding vote in September, restated her opposition to the project with greater conviction the second time around.
“There is no rear yard to speak of. There is no front yard either. The building is too big,” she said. She expressed displeasure with the appeal and the need for the re-vote.
“There is no reason for me to change my vote,” she said.
All eyes were on Kieninger cast the final and deciding vote.
“It’s a fantastic design – very elegant. But it is too tall for this property,” Kieninger said, expressing his belief that building of this size were better suited for Ocean Avenue and in the vicinity of the convention center. “I vote ‘no,’” he said.
Some of the Spencer Avenue neighbors had come expecting the worst, and they were pleasantly surprised.
“I am thrilled to death,” said Michael DellaVella, who owns a condominium in the Rising Sun complex that directly abuts the site, proposed for the project.
“I am extremely surprised,” he said. Original plans for the project included a six story wall to be built four inches from their property line, and Della Vella and his neighbors have been fighting approval of the project from when they learned of the application in June.
DellaVella and his neighbors have expressed frustration with the project and the approval process from the onset. He was notified of the developer’s plans by a neighbor just a few days before the public hearing. As the result of a bureaucratic glitch, he and the other residents received no written notice, as required by law.
Many missed the first public hearing on the project and were told initially that they had missed their chance to speak. Eventually, they were allowed to voice their opposition to the board.
“Wildwood has not welcomed us here,” DellaVella said. “It has not accepted us as neighbors or as friends.”
DellaVella contends that the recently reconfigured motel zone, allows for high rises to be built too close to new residential developments, compromising residents’ quality of life and property values. He is considering selling his condo.
In spite of that, he is jubilant, and invited his neighbors to steak dinner following the vote.
“When they reshuffled the deck,” he said, referring to the changes on the board, “We thought it was over. This is great.”
He expects that a new application will be submitted in the future, and he and his neighbors vow to fight anything that does not conform to the zoning laws.
“No matter what, I am dedicated to this fight,” he said.

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

Residents may find no more rooms at the inn

Staff Writer
WILDWOOD – With Christmas just around the corner, some residents might soon find out there is no room at the Inn – or at least at the motels where they are now living.
An ordinance introduced by commissioners here last Wednesday limits the duration of stays in the city’s hotels and motels. The proposed law stipulates: "No transient visitor can occupy a hotel, motel or multiple dwelling establishment for more than 30 days, nor can said transient extend their stay for longer than 30 days by moving into another unit within the same establishment."
“A motel unit is not designed for year-round occupancy,” Mayor Ernie Troiano said.
Nonetheless, the rising cost of rent has forced many low income residents into motels and boarding houses. Some use propane heaters and others use prohibited combination heat and air conditioning units, Troiano said.
“These people deserve to live in some sort of comfort and these motels are not designed to do that,” he said.
If passed, the ordinance would require motel owners to maintain a registry of all occupants, including a record of each guest’s permanent address and the date that the “occupancy commenced.” Motel visitors will also be required to show a drivers license or other photo ID to be kept on file during their stay, according to the proposed ordinance.
Troiano acknowledges that many of the city’s motel and boarding house residents can not afford more suitable housing, but he said the current situation is unacceptable and often causes public safety issues, including increased crime.
“It also has a tremendous impact on the school system,” he said.
Many of the motel residents pay for their stays with housing vouchers from Cape May County.
In addition to the vouchers, Wildwood also accepts section 8 housing, Troiano said.
“The county’s been using Wildwood as their base to send people for years. You name it, we took it,” Troiano said.
Many of the city’s boarding houses and motels have been demolished to make way for new development, Troiano said, and the ones that are left are unsuitable for long-term stays.
The lack of suitable housing is an issue that BLANK knows a lot about. Nardi, Miller Smith
The city’s food pantries specifically ask for donations of “heat and eat” items because many of their clients are limited to preparing meals in a microwave.
What will happen to residents when their length of stay is up?
“I think that is the county’s responsibility,” Troiano said. “Homelessness is a situation that the county has got to start addressing.”
The new regulations would apply to hotels, motels and multiple dwelling establishments, but Troiano said he was uncertain how the new regulations would affect the proposed condotels, which are a hybrid of individually-owned condominiums and hotel units.
The length of stay restrictions would apply to units in the condotels that are designated strictly as motel rooms, Troiano said, but the cost of these rooms would make it unlikely that people would use them for long-term stays.
“I really don’t think that will be a problem in these places,” he said.
As for the impact of the ordinance on condominium stays, Troiano said he was looking into it.
The Department of Community Affairs (DCA) defines hotels as any building “which contains ten or more dwelling units or has sleeping facilities for 25 persons and is kept, used, maintained advertised…as a place where sleeping or dwelling accommodations are available to guests.”
A multiple dwelling unit is defined in part as “any building…in which three or more dwelling units are occupied or intended to be occupied by three or more persons living independently of each other.
Transient is defined as a stay of not more than 90 days by a person who has a residence elsewhere.
“We want to control the types of housing that are in our community,” Troiano said.
Commissioners are scheduled to vote on the ordinance and to hear public comment on it at their next meeting on Dec. 14.

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