A majority of attendees who came out Tuesday night were in support of a plan that would give 1.36 acres of Seaside Heights beach to Casino Pier to extend its pier north, in return for pier owners, the Storino Family, giving the borough a parking lot.
Memories of walking the boards, riding the historic carousel, heading “down the shore” or working the stands – those were some of the classic memories area residents and business owners shared in the hearing, filling borough hall to standing-room only capacity.
Over two hours of testimony also included the recent memory of lost revenue, and of tourists wanting to know when the rides would return. Casino Pier famously was damaged during Superstorm Sandy, with its Jet Star roller coaster sitting in the ocean for months after the storm passed.
“Seaside Heights needs the Casino Pier expansion to keep the momentum going,” said Wayne Cimorelli, owner of Coin Castle arcade and Spicy Cantina, who is also a partner with the Storinos in Casino Pier. “The beach and the ocean in itself are not sufficient enough to bring the tourists back year after year … The competition to attract tourists is fierce.”
The March 22 hearing was to gather testimony on a plan to give the owners of Casino Pier 1.36 acres of the beach north of the pier. Borough Attorney George Gilmore said the owners found rebuilding the pier out into the ocean as it once was would be too cost prohibitive, and instead want to build north, add a giant Ferris Wheel and other rides in a $30 million project. In response, the borough was offering a land swap: Casino Pier could build its amusement pier over that north beach parcel and the borough would receive land from the Storino Family that is currently an Ocean Terrace parking lot between Carteret and Sampson avenues.
In what Gilmore said is a conceptual plan, the borough could then move the historic Dentzel-Loof Carousel there and build a museum where the parking lot had been located, possibly building a second floor to be rented for private events. The Casino Pier carousel, one of the oldest wooden, hand-carved carousels in New Jersey, was nearly sold for parts in 2014. It has been valued at more than $2.3 million.
The plan as it now stands would also give Seaside Heights some deed-restricted land at the headwaters of Winding River in Toms River, between 30 to 60 acres that the county currently owns, bought through its Natural Lands Trust fund.
Robert Moss, Green Acres Issue Coordinator for the Sierra Club of New Jersey, said the land swap is not a fair exchange. Though the swap is about 1.36 acres of beachfront land to between 30 and 60 acres of protected woodlands, Moss said any use of Green Acres lands is the use of a “cheaper alternative” than asking the owners to build east into the ocean, or pursue land for sale where the Funtown Pier once stood.
The plan does not meet the compelling reasons the DEP would need to approve the land swap, he argued, and added, “it’s a joke to the people and state of New Jersey, to say this land would be equivalent to beachfront property.”
A few speakers agreed with Moss, adding that the borough’s largest asset is its beach, and that the property should be developed by a private owner. Others were concerned that undertaking the preservation of the carousel and building a museum was a risky venture for taxpayers to fund.
“Only barrier island land should replace barrier island land,” said resident Bill Wafford. “Anything else would be a fraud…This entire proposal doesn’t make any sense. It sounds desperate.”
Wafford offered his own opinion but also serves as the president of the Seaside Heights Property Owners Association, saying that the association made no conclusion one way or another for or against and instead encouraged its members to share their opinions at the hearings.
The majority of speakers were in favor of the plan, and many were members of the business community. Some owned hotels, rental properties or other businesses in Seaside Heights, and others were from the adjacent communities, such as Paul Kelly, who owns a car service center in Lavallette.
“The boardwalk in Seaside Heights can make or break the entire barrier island, and people in Lavallette realize this,” he said. “The other businesses that you hear about like Great Adventure, Disneyworld … and just like that, it’s the rides that bring the people to Seaside.”
The borough’s business community came out overwhelmingly in support of the plan, which they say will help rejuvenate the tourism economy by adding new attractions and upgrading the boardwalk in the northern portion of town.
Additional public comment on the land swap can be accepted, in writing, until April 5.
Written comments on the matter should be directed to the Borough Administrator at 901 Boulevard, Seaside Heights, NJ 08751. Those who wish to comment in writing are asked to send a copy of any comments to the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, Green Acres Program, Bureau of Legal Services and Stewardship, Mail code 501-01, 501 East State Street, P.O. Box 420, Trenton, NJ 08625-0420.