Ocean County officials said Wednesday that they were not apprised of plans for their involvement in the purchase of the former Joey Harrison’s Surf Club property in Ortley Beach, and multiple steps need to be taken before they agree to participate in what has developed into a three-way deal between the property owners, Toms River Township and the county government.
The state has pledged to kick in $6.6 million toward the purchase of the oceanfront acreage, which would allow Toms River to expand the Ortley Beach boardwalk, plus add parking and amenities to the beach area. The Barcelona family, which owns the Surf Club property – destroyed in Superstorm Sandy in 2012 – was seeking $7 million for the land. Over the last week, negotiations mediated by an attorney hired by the Ortley Beach Voters and Taxpayers Association reached an agreement with the property owners wherein the township, with state funding, would buy the property. The difference would be made up by the township selling a separate (and thus far, undisclosed) property to the county for an undisclosed price. Several dozen Ortley Beach residents went to the county administration building prior to a work session meeting of the county freeholder board to urge members to place the item on the agenda for its next regular meeting.
Freeholder Joseph Vicari spoke to the assembled crowd, alongside County Administrator Carl W. Block.
“We’re in the process right now of reviewing the policies that would make this possible,” said Vicari, explaining that he only heard about the potential purchase at 2:30 p.m. Wednesday, 90 minutes before the work session meeting. “I talked to the administrator and he said, ‘look, we have a long way to go.’”
Vicari said he would personally support the acquisition of the Surf Club property by Toms River Township, but was unsure if support for a three-way deal with the county was present among board members and other officials.
“Should Toms River Township buy it? I would say yes,” Vicari said. “As a taxpayer I would support it, but what you’re asking us to do is a little more complicated. I can’t speak for the Board of Freeholders, the Open Space Committee or the advisory board.”
Ocean County voters approved an open space tax decades ago which has preserved thousands of acres of land, often with the cooperation of municipalities or private parties. But plots of land are appraised, reviewed and subject to scrutiny by a committee and advisory board before they are presented to the freeholders for a final decision. In the case of the Surf Club property, Ocean County would not be adding to its purchase, but rather acquiring a completely separate property that is current owned by the township.
“Last year, your representatives should have come down and spoke to the Board of Freeholders at a public meeting so we knew what you were thinking,” Vicari told the OBVTA members, however representatives from the group said the mediation process that led to the proposal only wrapped up recently.
“We didn’t know until the mediator told us about this,” said OBVTA Vice President Paul Jeffrey.
The Ortley Beach residents assembled at the steps of the administration building carrying signs supporting the purchase of the former nightclub and restaurant property. After the board began its meeting inside, a short chant could be heard in the meeting room: “What do we want?” “Open Space.” When do we want it?” “Now.”
For many of the Ortley Beach residents, a purchase of the property would represent not only additional space for recreation and beach access, but equity in what many have seen as an uneven ratio of preserved land in their community compared to others in a neighborhood that pays higher-than-average property taxes due to its value.
“Ortley Beach is an amazing cash cow, not just for Toms River but for Ocean County,” said resident and OBVTA board member Toni Tomarazzo. “I have never seen Ocean County, other than Bayfront Park, put a penny into Ortley Beach. Our community pales in comparison to communities like Lavallette, places where there is tremendous open space.”
Vicari, however, said officials would have to consider the value of the oceanfront parcel.
“A lot of the taxes that pay for this building and our schools come from oceanfront property,” he said.
The OBVTA members said the community is still rebuilding from Sandy eight years later and wants to turn the beach enclave into a more hospitable destination.
“We’ve developed this town not to be just the economic engine of the Jersey Shore, but an attraction for homeowners and visitors alike,” said Tomarazzo. “We can’t sustain that unless we get our share of open space. It’s an opportunity not just for Toms River to do the right thing, but Ocean County.”
Local officials have been mum on the deal, which is bound by confidentiality agreements. Even the OBVTA leadership is not privy to specific details. But upon hearing about the potential purchase, one Toms River council member raised questions about the rumored purchase price.
“It’s now come to my attention that in 2015, the Barcelona family won a tax appeal after offering expert testimony that the property was worth less than $1.9 Million,” said Councilman Dan Rodrick, who has been ensnared in a battle with Mayor Maurice “Mo” Hill and his fellow council members on a slew of issues related to land use. He accused his foes of wanting to pay more for the property than it is work.
Rodrick said the remaining structure on the property should be torn down and the township should consider using eminent domain to acquire a portion.
“This township should give the owners of the Surf Club 90 days to tear down that structure – and if they don’t, we should tear it down – and put a lien on the property for the cost of demolition,” he said.
“We should not pay a penny more than what State is willing to give us,” he continued. “If the Surf Club property [was] worth what they are asking, it would have sold already. We’re at a peak in the real estate market – and this is prime ocean front property. No one in the private sector has made a better offer.”
Council President Maria Maruca said she would not be able to comment on the matter due to the confidentiality of the negotiations. Hill did not return a message seeking comment.
For residents, the purchase has become a major priority, seen as an opportunity to unleash state investment into the community.
“This is our chance to take that check for $6.6 million from the state of New Jersey and walk to the bank,” said Tomarazzo.