Cape May Does ‘Do-Over’ on Redevelopment

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CAPE MAY – Cape May Mayor Clarence Lear gave himself and other city officials a mulligan with regard to the city’s attempts at redevelopment.

In opening remarks at an Aug. 13 special town hall meeting, Lear said the city would try a “do-over” on redevelopment following a raucous January Planning Board meeting when most of the public jammed the meeting room to voice strong opposition to redevelopment plans for the block housing the Washington Commons and most city municipal buildings.

Lear wanted a new beginning. He accepts that the city “did not do a good job” explaining redevelopment law and the “opportunities” it could offer Cape May. 

To get it right this time the city has enlisted the aid of an experienced land use and redevelopment lawyer, James Maley, who is also the long-term mayor of Collingswood. The municipality in Camden County community is often presented as a poster child for redevelopment’s benefits.

The two-hour session had only one agenda item, an introduction to redevelopment.

After brief opening remarks by the mayor, Maley spoke for the first hour and responded to audience questions for the second.

Opportunity, Control

One persistent theme of Maley’s remarks was control, the ability to use redevelopment law to gain greater control over “if, when and how” development takes place in the community.

Opportunities will come along, Maley said, and redevelopment designations help prepare a community to take advantage of those opportunities in ways that meet a municipality’s vision and sense of itself.

For Maley, redevelopment is not to be feared, it is to be embraced.

Without using redevelopment designations, communities must fall back on a cumbersome system of zoning ordinances. Maley was not shy about his view of traditional land use management ordinances.

“Zoning is the least efficient, least effective way to control development,” he said.

Redevelopment, on the other hand, offers a town the ability to “operate like a business.” It allows negotiation with prospective developers, offering a flexibility which traditional zoning reviews cannot match, he argued.

“If you want blue shutters, you get blue shutters,” was a phase Maley returned to frequently, meaning that the negotiation and incentivizing opportunities presented by redevelopment give communities a chance to get very specific desires satisfied within the context of a redevelopment plan.

What’s not to love? As Maley presents it, redevelopment is all pluses and no minuses.

To those who raised concerns that a redevelopment process concentrates too much power in the governing body, Maley said they already have the power.

Those who advocate the current structure of review boards and the “protections” of zoning ordinances are kidding themselves, according to Maley. “The governing body can change the zoning ordinance now, without recourse for redevelopment,” he said.

Those who are worried about by-passing review groups like the Planning Board and the Historical Commission shouldn’t be. Maley points to the fact that all the same reviews for site plans remain in effect.

Redevelopment designations, and its sibling rehabilitation designations, are ways to get control and increase flexibility, so a community gets the development it wants. Maley’s “redevelopment forum” is almost a sermon by a true believer who cannot see why anyone would oppose the use of redevelopment law.

Trust and Public Involvement

Maley said he used the live-stream posts of the January Planning Board meeting to see what it was that people so strongly opposed. 

Maley dismissed the fears of “secret plans” and “behind closed door” discussions, but much of the opposition in January stemmed directly from trust issues rather than merely an erroneous equation of modern redevelopment with old-style urban renewal.

Maley aligned the “do-over” with a perspective that favored “Public meeting things to death.”

He said he did not favor an approach that flowed from a specific developer’s plans to a redevelopment designation. Rather, he advocated using redevelopment designations as vehicles to build public support, specific developers and their visions may follow quickly or after an extended period. 

The shelf life of a redevelopment designation can be a long one. 

Maley ran through the specifics of redevelopment and rehabilitation designations. He presented a primer of plans for “payments in lieu of taxes.” Maley showed the process that must be used with its multiple opportunities for public input.

In the end, redevelopment was the way for a community to deal with areas where the city may have aged less well than it has in others. It is a way to encourage investment, even it seems by individual homeowners in their own residences.

He urged those in attendance to ensure “public officials are keeping you informed” and “seeking your input” throughout the process.

It seemed in the end that Maley sees redevelopment laws as a way to achieve greater flexibility and better control over development, but much of it also depends upon transparency.

To contact Vince Conti, email

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