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CAPE MAY – The Sewell Tract is an approximately 100-acre area of open space in East Cape May with substantial wetlands.

In 1990, the land was conveyed to a developer, East Cape May Associates (ECMA). Litigation ensued as ECMA fought with the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) over what areas within the tract could be developed and whether state regulations deprived the developer of the value of the property.

Several years ago, a non-profit group calling itself the Concerned Citizens for Sewell Tract Preservation (Concerned Citizens), entered the litigation to preserve the tract from development.

On June 4, Cape May City Council formally took a position regarding this litigation when it adopted a resolution stating that the city “formally expresses its opposition to development of the Sewell Tract.”

It stated that the city supports “the position of the Concerned Citizens.”

Until that vote, the city had been content to remain outside the issue under litigation even though city officials had expressed concerns that generally favored preservation.

Why the city chose to take a formal position now is unclear. Jules Rauch, speaking during public comment at the meeting, urged the council not to consider the resolution that was proposed by the Concerned Citizens group.  “They are a party to the litigation,” he reminded council.

The vote on the resolution was split 2-1 with Beatrice Pessagno voting no and Roger Furlin absent. 

Mayor Clarence Lear and Deputy Mayor Shaine Meier voted yes. Patricia Hendricks abstained because her husband is an officer of Concerned Citizens. Pessagno said her no vote was not because she favored development.

Pessagno argued that the resolution was premature and that the city needed to know specifically what impact a formal resolution might have on existing grants the city had related to the tract. She unsuccessfully asked for a delay in the vote.

Rauch stated his opposition citing three reasons. First, that the city should not take a position on a matter that is in litigation. His second was that it was not clear what the impact of the resolution might be on the existing grants. 

Lastly, Rauch argued that development of approximately 20 acres of the tract would preserve 80 percent of the area and still provide new tax revenue for the city, a concept he felt should be studied.

Scott Maslow, a member of the Seawall and Promenade Advisory Committee, argued that the city no longer needed to develop areas solely for ratables and development of the track is “not a good idea.”

Gretchen Whitman, director of Cape May’s Nature Center, who spoke for New Jersey Audubon, called the area a “critical wildlife habitat” and urged passage of the resolution. 

In the end, the resolution passed while the long-standing litigation continues.  The city did not enter into the litigation.

To contact Vince Conti, email vconti@cmcherald.com.

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