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This is the first of two articles on Wildwood development delays.

WILDWOOD – Multiple highly anticipated projects, widely considered to be an improvement over their current developed and, in some cases, dilapidated predecessors, in Wildwood, were put on hold and into limbo this winter when the state said, after further review, it made a mistake in approving them. 

Now, political leaders are uniting to urge a swift resolution to the problem. 

The projects frozen by the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) include a proposed 74-unit hotel, with 75 parking spaces; a 30-unit boardwalk hotel, with a 27-car garage and retail space; a proposed public pool bar and restaurant below a 74-unit workforce housing building; a full square block of townhomes, at the former St. Ann School and Rectory site; and another Pacific Avenue project, for which plans have not yet been announced.

Zoom Meeting

In a recent private Zoom meeting, state Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-3rd), Sen. Michael Testa (R-1st), Assemblyman Antwan McClellan (R-1st), and Wildwood Mayor Peter Byron met with Acting DEP Commissioner Shawn LaTourette and other environmental officials to urge the DEP to quickly resolve the permitting problem, which halted construction of two projects and delayed demolition and construction of three others, the Herald learned. 

“It was a pretty powerful group, and everybody right up to the commissioner said, 'We’re going to work on getting this stuff fast-tracked as quickly as we can,'” Byron said, in an interview. “It’s nice when you have both sides of the aisle working together for the same goal.”

Sweeney, in a separate interview, said he got involved about three weeks ago after Byron called him and he spoke to Testa.

“The mayor and the commissioners (Steve Mikulski and Krista Fitzsimmons) got some momentum going. They got buildings coming down, and then we stopped them,” Sweeney said. “We’ve got to get them down and then work through the other stuff. We’re going to do that. We’re not going to let this thing just sit idle.”

Sweeney helped facilitate the meeting with LaTourette, and suggested to Byron they get Testa involved, according to the mayor.

“If you’re going to get things done, you have to have friends on both sides of the aisle, and you have to be able to communicate with those guys. The fact that we had the Republican Assembly member and the Republican senator on the same screen with the Democratic Senate president and Democratic mayor, that speaks volumes of the direction Wildwood has come in the last 14 months,” said Byron.

Testa and McClellan did not immediately respond to requests for interviews for this story. 

Background

The problem began in late February, when the DEP issued letters, obtained by the Herald, to three developers - Mahesh Shah, Diamond Beach Properties LLC, and Joseph Byrne - telling them they needed Coastal Area Facility Review Act (CAFRA) permits for their projects. 

CAFRA is regulation for coastal builders and requires a hefty application fee and a lengthy approval process. It also puts stringent conditions on developers, including parking requirements. 

Two of the letters, signed by Christopher Jones, manager of the DEP’s Bureau of Coastal Permitting, acknowledged Shah and Diamond Beach Properties were told in coastal jurisdictional determination letters, written in 2020, that a CAFRA permit was not required for their separate hotel projects. 

After the fact, the DEP said that was a mistake, and they need CAFRA permits.

A call to LaTourette’s office requesting an interview for this story was returned by a woman who referred the reporter to DEP Communications Director Brendon Shank. Shank did not return a phone message requesting the interview.

Byrne, the managing principal at B.G. Capital, a Philadelphia real estate firm that has been recently active on the island, received a letter signed by Joslin Tamagno, an environmental supervisor in the DEP’s Division of Land Resource Protection.

The letter stated the project in the 3600 block of Pacific Avenue - the proposed public pool bar with workforce housing units above, marketed toward J-1students working in the Wildwoods- would require a CAFRA permit.

Byrne said he researched the other approved projects and expected to be granted the same exemption for that project and two other properties – the St. Ann’s townhomes project, called “100 E. Magnolia,” and the 3800 block of Pacific Avenue, for which plans have not yet been announced. 3800 Pacific will have to have parking to meet the requirement for the 3600 Pacific CAFRA.

Wildwood Doesn’t Qualify?

The original reason given that the projects did not need permits was Wildwood was identified as a “qualifying municipality,” a determination made by the state Department of Community Affairs (DCA), which exempts projects under 75 units from CAFRA requirements.

“Based on a further review of the resources available, it has been determined that the City of Wildwood is not a qualifying municipality” and is therefore not exempt from a CAFRA permit, the correction letters, issued about a year later, state. 

Sweeney said Wildwood should fall into that category but doesn’t.

“It belongs in that category,” he said. “It’s similar to Atlantic City. Atlantic City should have been an AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination) school district, but it wasn’t because of the value of the casinos, so the value of the community was so high, you couldn’t qualify it, but the reality is, the people that live there year-round are poor. Wildwood is not much different.”

Sweeney said the end goal is to get Wildwood the qualifying municipality designation, but the more immediate concern is to get the proper approvals in place to tear the vacant buildings down.

“We need to fix this. It was human error, to be honest with you. Someone just basically assumed they were a municipality that fell into that category,” Sweeney said, but he declined to say where the error was made. 

“It was made in the state government. I’m not going to say this department or that department… Honestly, as much as people don’t want to hear this, sometimes things do happen, and that’s what this was. It was a mistake,” he continued.

The support of Sweeney, who said he is glad to be helping Byron and Testa, is opening doors and communication lines that might not be there without his support. 

“There’s a bigger picture than just these half a dozen projects because, at the end of the day, we’re going to get them through and they’re going to be fine. We just want to make the town as user-friendly as we can for developers and give them every tool to succeed,” said Byron.

The DEP letters referred all questions to Tamagno’s email account. Tamagno did not respond to multiple emails from the Herald requesting to discuss the Wildwood CAFRA matter. 

Larry Hajna, a DEP spokesman, originally provided the letters relevant to the case when requested, but later did not respond to emails asking for insight on the DEP’s position or a request to facilitate an interview with someone from the DEP about the matter.

In the second article, whichwill appear in next week’s Herald, May 19, affected developers weigh in on what the DEP is doing to help them through the problem, and officials look ahead to what’s next for these frozen properties and rules for development in the city.

To contact Shay Roddy, email sroddy@cmcherald.com.

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