New Jersey coast ponders renewal

Longtime residents are cashing in on Ocean City boom

October 07, 2001|By Amy S. Rosenberg | Amy S. Rosenberg,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

OCEAN CITY, N.J. - Peg McCabe, 67, is rushing to put her 100-year-old home on the market. She knows the likely buyer for it: a developer who will tear the bungalow down in a flash and build a duplex in its place.

That's fine with her, McCabe said.

After 40 years, and now with an ailing husband to care for, McCabe is ready to cash in on a booming Ocean City tear-down-and-rebuild investors' market that has brought more than $300 million in new "ratables" since 1996.

"This is what is going to keep us going," she said. "This is it. All our money's here in this property."

It's an Ocean City transaction as ubiquitous as lemonade on the boardwalk, one that has led to a 26 percent increase in seasonal units over the last decade. But this summer, there is a movement in town to put the brakes on this duplex fever before it overtakes the town completely.

`In the name of greed'

"Ocean City is really being overdeveloped in the name of greed," said Georgina Shanley, who has lived in Ocean City for four years and has two sons among the dwindling Ocean City High School population.

"It's really the destruction of community," said Shanley, whose car sports a yellow bumper sticker that says "God Save Us from the Greed in Ocean City." "I think it's gone too far. I welcome people to come to Ocean City on vacation, but it has become so overcrowded."

This summer, an obscure civic requirement to redo the city master plan every seven years has thrown a spotlight onto this booming beach town with an identity crisis. Whose Ocean City is this anyway?

Unlike other New Jersey shore towns such as Ventnor and Margate, which have evolved into having a majority of year-round residents, Ocean City has remained defiantly the province of second-home owners and investors, despite the efforts of year-round people to stem the tide. In the last three years, developers have torn down 955 units and built 1,203 units - mostly duplexes - in their place.

Now, a proposal from consultants hired by the city to reduce the size of new duplexes - from 40 percent of a lot size to 35 percent - has investors, developers and Realtors up in arms.

"That doesn't sound like much of a reduction," said Gary Jessel, president of the Ocean City Board of Realtors. "But in Ocean City, it means you would lose a full bedroom in one of the duplex condominiums we build here. On a 40-by-100-foot lot, that would decrease the value of that property by $100,000."

But ask Councilman Ray Jones, and he'll tell you he's not too interested in hearing about how much the town depends on its 150,000 seasonal residents, and the developers who cater to them. He said he feared that this fall would usher in a frenzy of demolition as developers rushed to build before the new restrictions would be adopted.

Seeking preservation

Jones wants the town preserved as much as possible for its 17,000 year-round residents, many of whom are retired, like him and his wife, Roberta. He is supporting the proposed restrictions, which were the subject of five contentious public hearings this summer and will be considered by the planning board this fall.

"Really, we have more people in town in the summer than we can say grace over," Jones said. "We are simply overcrowded. One thing people don't realize, the tourism dollars don't help the city economy that much. We do have the privilege and expense of cleaning up."

Jones and other year-round neighborhood activists bristle at those who call Ocean City a "tourist town" and nothing else, and say their concerns about the impact of a reduction in duplex size are exaggerated.

"They've had it their way for so many years," said Brian Illencik, who lives in Ocean City Homes, one of the city's few single-family neighborhoods, which, despite its distance from the beach, is seeing the encroachment of duplexes. The new master plan would set its zoning at single family.

"The Realtors are bringing out of the woodwork anyone who will say, "I'm not going to realize 500 percent, I'm going to realize 400 percent. Poor me.' It's a `Chicken Little' chorus."

But John Loeper, a bed-and-breakfast owner and chairman of both the Historic Commission and the Zoning Board, said those who want to rein in the booming development are living in a fantasy land.

"People have to get a life," he said. "It's a city by the sea. A lot of them are what we call the last person over the bridge. They move from two acres in Wayne [in Passaic County] or whatever, and all of a sudden they're here, and they realize they're living in a city."

Year-round residents insist that the town has to remain viable for them in order for it to retain the small-town, family-oriented character that attracts all those summer visitors to begin with, including many who eventually settled year-round.

`Changing too much'

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