WILDWOOD - The city’s Planning and Zoning Board approved plans for a residential complex, which would occupy a full square block of the island where the St. Ann Rectory and School once sat.
The school’s demolition and construction on the property, however, could be delayed several months or longer, after the developer was notified that Coastal Area Facility Review Act (CAFRA) permits issued by the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) would unexpectedly be required.
The rectory was demolished in February, before the CAFRA issue came to light, over the objection of local historic preservationists, who garnered 2,700 virtual signatures on an online petition to try to save the building (https://www.change.org/p/current-future-owners-of-st-ann-s-property-save-the-st-ann-s-rectory-wildwood-nj).
Until the permitting issue is resolved, demolition and construction at the sites has come to a stop. Obtaining a CAFRA permit can often be a lengthy, drawn-out process.
“When you send an application into CAFRA, it’s not a two-week turnaround. It can be a six or a nine-month turnaround,” Wildwood Mayor Peter Byron said. “What that could mean is the difference between the summer of 2022 versus the summer of 2023, with these projects coming to fruition. That’s huge for the city. It’s huge for the developers, but it will have an economic impact on the city, if we have to wait another year.”
According to the mayor, lawyers for the developer, B.G. Capital, did not anticipate a need for CAFRA permits for the property, and the city shared that position, based on developers for two similar projects receiving determination letters in 2020 stating that CAFRA permitting wouldn’t be needed.
B.G. Capital did not respond to multiple requests for an interview about the project.
The firm has been instrumental in redevelopment efforts in Wildwood and is currently working on two other projects in town, one of which is also affected by the CAFRA permitting issue.
Byron said he is confident the issue will not ultimately derail plans but is not happy about the delay.
“We are frustrated. At this point, I would rather see an empty lot than a dilapidated building, and we can’t move further until we get clarification on CAFRA,” Byron said.
Asked why there was a change of heart on the need for a permit, Byron said he wasn’t sure.
“I can’t answer that. That’s one of the questions we’re asking the state,” the mayor replied.
The 6 p.m. Planning and Zoning Board meeting, where plans were presented, was delayed 40 minutes due to audio problems with the Zoom feed. The meeting concluded after 10 p.m., with over 60 people on the Zoom call at one point.
Plans call for upscale townhomes and duplexes, with state-of-the-art outdoor communal areas, including hot tubs, pools, grills and other shared amenities.
Byron said the plans are unique for Wildwood and could be a blueprint for future development.
The city had received no tax revenue from the property when it was owned by Notre Dame de la Mer Parish. Byron says increasing ratables is a priority of his administration.
Taylor Henry, cofounder, Preserving the Wildwoods, started the online petition in favor of saving the rectory. She attended the meeting and put her objection to the project on the record.
“It was hard to convince people that it was a building worth saving,” Henry said, in an interview. “We had 2,700 people sign the petition, but the people who really mattered were not convinced.”
Representatives for B.G. Capital testified during the meeting that the building was ridden with asbestos, and that it was in awful condition after a demolition sale before they acquired it. They said they will pay tribute to historical architecture through design features on the new construction.
After the Planning and Zoning Board meeting was adjourned, the Zoom feed was left active for several seconds, and cross talk from the meeting room at City Hall was heard on the livestream.
One person in the room said, “they went nuts over that,” before another said, “hold on, hold on,” followed up the call ending.
Henry said she didn’t appreciate that negative attitude and thinks the board can be intimidating, which is one of the reasons there were ultimately only three public commenters, herself among them, despite strong support for the petition.
“The board can be kind of mean to people who comment. Not directly, but after the meeting is over, you can hear them talking and saying things and laughing. It’s just kind of hurtful,” Henry said.
Byron said he has met with the historical society, but the reality is the properties aren’t city owned properties, and there is not a historic designation on the island that would prohibit a landowner from demolishing a building on their property.
“I listen, but you can’t stop progress either,” Byron said. “I mean this respectfully, but we have over 5,000 taxpayers and homeowners. We owe it to those folks to do everything we can to stabilize taxes. The way you stabilize taxes is bringing in new residential properties.”
For now, demolition of the school and the beginning of construction will sit in a state of limbo. Larry Hajna, a DEP spokesman, said he was looking into why CAFRA permits were being required for these projects, but did not respond with an answer before publication.
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