Toms River officials are about to embark on what could be one of the most high-profile public land purchases in decades: the conversion of a privately-owned ocean beach to a fully public one, completely with boardwalk, parking and access.
The state has pledged more than $6 million to purchase what could be one of the last publicly-owned swaths of oceanfront along the Jersey Shore. Toms River has also signaled it is willing to fund a portion of the purchase price from the township’s open space fund – a rare event for the township’s barrier island portion. Residents say the purchase will prevent high-density condominiums from being placed along the ocean, significantly increase access and parking for residents, connect the township’s boardwalk areas and provide more opportunities for recreation. Some mainland residents, however, have argued the township’s open space funds should be dedicated to purchasing properties in North Dover and other inland sections that could, likewise, face high-density development.
Lawrence Bathgate II, the Lakewood attorney representing the Barcelona family, which owns the Surf Club property, said in an e-mail to Shorebeat that his firm has valued the parcel at a higher level than assessors hired by the township, who pegged the value at $7 million.
Before Superstorm Sandy leveled the former nightclub and restaurant, it was assessed at $9.45 million and its owners paid over $200,000 per year in property taxes. At the request of the state, the Barcelona family said through Bathgate’s office that they had retained their own appraiser at their cost. That appraiser assessed the property’s value at $10.22 million the “as of the day before Superstorm Sandy.”
Bathgate also said before the storm struck, a major homebuilder – which was not identified except for the fact that the company is listed on the New York Stock Exchange – offered $10 million for site.
The township, however, rejected the most audacious plan proposed for the site, consisting of dozens of condominium units and turning Ocean Avenue over to a private developer to use for amenities within the complex. The state, for its part, also rejected that plan, which could conceivably lower the value of the property.
Officials on Tuesday night said the previous township council took “seconds” to dismiss the idea of giving up its street to a developer and there was no indication the current council would consider such a move.
“The Barcellonas are looking forward to a fair and equitable result in this transaction,” said Bathgate.
The mediation sessions are being funded by donations from the Ortley Beach Voters and Taxpayers Association, which has long pushed for the purchase of the site. The OBVTA said its residents fund a sizable portion of the open space funding collected by the township and rarely have a chance for it to be utilized on the island. Plus, proponents say, mainland residents would have an easier time parking and accessing their town’s beach, businesses could flourish with additional customers being drawn to the area, and more year-round residents may be attracted to the area.
The mediation is set for next week.
“The government has offered Toms River $6.6 million toward the purchase. It’s a lot of money and we really don’t want to lose it,” said Cathy Crisafulli, an OBVTA board member. “You already have the jewel – let’s put the diamond in it.”