WILDWOOD – Below 26 acres of overgrown, uneven bayfront land, full of broken glass, junk, and city equipment, sits years of the city’s trash. On top of it, is a potential gold mine - what could become some of the most valuable real estate in Wildwood.
Perhaps the largest undeveloped bayfront land left on a New Jersey barrier island, a former landfill in Wildwood has long been a point of political controversy in the city, which stalled the site’s development for years. That may be changing.
Now, it is being offered as a blank canvas to all interested builders, who can propose any type of development, with any layout they think best suits the land, between Baker and Spicer avenues, west of Susquehanna Avenue.
“We're very open-minded. We just want to see what's the best opportunity,” said Wildwood Mayor Peter Byron, in an interview, adding any combination or type of commercial or residential use would be considered.
“The bid, if you want to call it a bid, would really be their idea, their vision. That is what they’re going to sell us on,” he added.
Byron mentioned residential, restaurants or other commercial uses, marinas, or any combination thereof as potential considerations.
Byron and former Mayor Ernie Troiano Jr., with whom Byron served as a commissioner, were at odds in prior years over whether to open the project to bids or hand the project to a specific developer, Mike Young, whom Troiano favored, but Byron contended may not have the experience or financial wherewithal to complete the job.
After Byron defeated Troiano in the 2019 election and took over as the city’s mayor last January, he made getting the landfill job out to bid one of his priorities.
“If we would have started this process four or five years ago, when I wanted to put it out to bid, we would be much further along at this point. Having said that, we have to start somewhere. In a very short period of time, we've been able to do something that, quite frankly, should have been started a long time ago,” Byron said.
In December, commissioners passed a resolution publicly soliciting requests for qualifications (RFQ) from developers interested in the project.
After Feb. 2, when all RFQs are due, commissioners will interview developers and hope to decide on a designated developer at the Feb. 24 Board of Commissioners meeting, according to Byron.
Because the site is designated as a “redevelopment zone,” the city has more leniency with which developer or type of development it is required to accept. It does not have to take the low bidder.
The project’s tumultuous past began when K. Hovnanian, the developer that built the Tides at Seaboard Point, the five-story, blue-roof condo buildings visible from North Wildwood Boulevard, on the site of a former 19-acre bayfront landfill in North Wildwood, dropped out of the Wildwood project.
Hovnanian had a deposit down to do the job in Wildwood, too, but when the housing market crashed, in 2008, it was stuck with many of the North Wildwood units unsold and had to back out because they lacked cash.
The project in North Wildwood was successful, and when the market rebounded, the real estate became hot. There are three of those condo units on the market, each with an asking price over $600,000.
In 2010, the idea of a park or a solar farm was floated, after Gary DeMarzo took over from Troiano as the city’s mayor, before the focus returned to redevelopment after Troiano won reelection.
Enter Young, a former bar owner and home builder, who had a working relationship with Troiano, who has a concrete business. Byron maintains that he has nothing against Young and expects he will submit an RFQ but objected to the process under Troiano of not having any competition.
“It was never anything personal I had against (Young). My position all along was that developer had a right to put in a proposal just like anyone else. I wanted the city to get the best opportunity, and for me to be all in on one developer, it wasn't putting the city in that position,” Byron said. “You got to have that competition.”
Byron contends that Scarborough Properties, a Somers Point developer with a proven track record, expressed interest in the project in 2017. He said he met Sean Scarborough, one of the company’s partners, in his office that February, and Scarborough agreed to come and give a presentation to the Board of Commissioners that April.
Byron said Scarborough was uninvited at the eleventh hour by Troiano, who didn’t want them to get in Young’s way.
“Pete (Byron) says I told Scarborough to stay away. Not true. Not true at all. If Scarborough was interested in it, who am I to tell them to stay away?” Troiano said. “I had a conversation with them. The conversation led to that he wasn't that interested in it.”
However, a letter from Sean Scarborough to Byron, obtained by the Herald through an Open Public Records Act request, seems to contradict that narrative. In the letter, Scarborough tells Byron his company looked into the site and intended to build “water-dependent commercial regulation uses that we believe would be encouraged and supported by NJDEP (state Department of Environmental Protection) CAFRA (Coastal Area Facility Review Act) regulations.”
Scarborough explains in the letter that he “received a call from Mayor Troiano, who politely explained that the deal with (Young) is far along and being documented at this time, and that there is a commitment to follow through on the deal.”
He notes he understands “the property’s potential and its limitation in terms of permitting. Perhaps we will have an opportunity to pursue something in the future should the current concept not materialize.”
Byron said he expects Scarborough and three or four other developers to submit an RFQ to the city next month. Troiano said he would be shocked if Scarborough, or anyone else, did so. He said Young is the only one who was willing to develop there, since its being a brownfield, or a site with environmental contamination, makes it unattractive.
“Either I'm dead wrong or I'm dead right. I'm banking that I'm dead right. If I'm wrong, then I'll apologize,” Troiano said, adding he always believed in Young. “I don't think I'm wrong. I don't think I'm wrong at all.”
Larry Hajna, a spokesman for the DEP, explained some of the challenges with development on the site in an email to the Herald. Hajna stated the DEP approved a closure and post-closure plan for the landfill in 2019, which includes capping the landfill with a low-permeability soil cap.
“Should Wildwood wish to redevelop the landfill for residential and/or commercial purposes, the city would be required to retain a licensed site remediation professional to perform and oversee investigation and remediation per DEP regulations.
If Wildwood plans other types of redevelopment - such as open space, recreation, or renewable energy - the closure and/or disturbance would be overseen by the DEP. In either case, DEP land-use permits would likely be required, as well,” stated Hajna, adding Wildwood has not advised the DEP of its plans for the site at this time.
The site would require 9,000 cubic yards of capping, according to Richard Harron Sr., Wildwood's public works director.
While the city will hear offers to sell the land, Byron said the potential windfall for the city would come in the form of future ratables, not in the land’s value, since none of it is buildable as it sits.
There would have to be sewers, electric, water, and other infrastructure, which would be run back to the site at the cost of the developer, Harron said.
“If you look at the future, it should have a long-term positive effect, not just for that site, but the neighboring property around it. When they see that, they might build upon those properties, fix the properties up, and just improve the city as a whole. I think that's the objective,” said Harron.
Several houses are under construction or recently sold along Susquehanna Avenue, adjacent to the landfill.
“It's not a coincidence this stuff was all just developed this year. It's the overall vibe that the city has, the positive vibe about the direction the city's going,” said Byron.
One Philadelphia area builder, who completed multiple brownfield projects in New Jersey but is not involved with the Wildwood landfill, told the Herald that taking on such a job without experience is too ambitious due to the complexity of the regulation process.
“We need a developer that is used to working on a brownfield. Because, like I said, this isn't a traditional buildable lot where there’s really no checks and balances,” agreed Byron. “In this situation, because you have to be able to navigate the bureaucracy that’s going to be involved to get all of these permits in place, you need someone who has experience with that.”
Troiano admitted sometimes he can be hardheaded but stopped short of saying that trait got in the way of his judgment of Young’s capability to do the project.
“Sometimes, I get on a mission and if I feel I'm right, sometimes I'm hell-bent and I'll do what I have to do. I thought I was dead right on the back bay. I still think I'm dead right on the back bay. Time will either prove me right or wrong,” Troiano said.
There is only one chance to get it right. The cost to create buildable lots is so prohibitive, choosing the wrong developer could have catastrophic consequences. Even if they get something built, it could leave the city short of realizing the land’s potential.
“If you bring in a bad developer, the long-term effect won’t be there. That’s why they need to bring in a strong, solid developer. Someone who is going to bring commercial properties and create some excitement in the area to build on the future of the city,” said Harron.
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