The first in-person Surf City Borough Council meeting in more than a year was standing room only and spilled out of the meeting room into the hallway with emotions running high as officials and residents addressed plans to tear down Surf City Square for five single-family homes.
The strip mall is situated in the cutout between Sixth and Seventh streets. It currently houses five businesses. At least one of those businesses will be relocated within the borough, according to Mayor Francis Hodgson. Hodgson and his son William, a councilman, are part of FHW Land Holdings LLC, which purchased the property that sits on 23,000 square feet of land with existing businesses totaling 12,300 square feet.
And therein lies the public outcry, according to snippets of comments from the packed meeting room as members of the public and governing body attempted to address the issue July 14. While clapping and cheers of support made it difficult to hear follow-up questions or comments from the public as well as responses from council, it was clear some audience members are in favor of keeping Surf City Square as is and upgrading it.
“It’s the best of both worlds,” Bob Garrison, a member of the public, said of mixed use at the existing site of Surf City Square.
Parking for the businesses is mostly along the cutout, which runs parallel to the Boulevard. Beachgoers also use the cutouts for parking and sometimes when parking isn’t available potential business customers leave for another area of town or the Island where parking can be found. However, a lot of customers walk or ride their bicycles to that area of the borough because they know the parking situation can be frustrating. As an alternative, someone suggested time limits for parking.
But Mayor Hodgson said there are other concerns that need to be taken into consideration for the area, like beach badge sales.
“When you sell beach badges, you need to provide parking,” he explained, saying limiting time to park in the cutout would be considered limiting access to the beaches, and that’s a red flag for the state.
Additionally, the mayor said the property was marketed as five separate, buildable lots when it was put up for sale earlier this year. The strip mall, which is housed partly in a nearly 100-year-old building, would likely be torn down in favor of homes regardless of who purchased the property, he said, because it makes good business sense.
“It was failing,” Hodgson, the mayor, said, noting some of the businesses that have passed through the strip mall in the past five or so years have included a bakery, a deli and an ice cream parlor. “Once the drugstore left, it was like the kiss of death.”
The strip mall was the former site of Surf City Pharmacy for decades. Currently, the business with the most time at the location is Pyour Core, a pilates and fitness studio.
“The rentals were bad,” Mayor Hodgson said. “The guy was losing money.”
He said in doing an evaluation of the property, rejuvenating it was looked at, but the electric and plumbing are outdated.
“It’s a bad location,” Mayor Hodgson said to jeers from the crowd.
“I am tired of us being labeled the big, bad developers,” Councilman Hodgson said, noting how often his family bought failing business sites in the past and rebuilt them as commercial and residential units. One site is the former McClellan plumbing site.
He also noted the former laundromat, which was demolished earlier this year, will be home to two existing businesses. Both are already located in the borough, he added.
Mayor Hodgson has said there are plans for another existing business site, which will be a complete rebuild. That could potentially be three commercial units over three lots. The application has not been before the land use board. If approved and if added to the businesses being relocated at the laundromat site, the borough would not be losing any businesses to houses. The business units would simply be in a different area of town.
There are currently 142 businesses in the borough, according to Councilman Hodgson. He said if not carefully balanced out, boarded-up commercial properties on the Boulevard could become problematic. The borough is just over one square mile.
Blowback on the Surf City Square property is also being felt by the borough’s land use board, which in May was asked to interpret deed restrictions placed on the site, including one prohibiting it from future subdivision for as long as it remained a commercial site. The intent was to ensure ample parking for the businesses that comprised the five-lot site. The fifth lot was never built on and is located behind the mall where business owners and their employees park. Garbage bins are also located there.
Councilman Peter Hartney, who also chairs the land use board, took the opportunity July 14 to explain land use, the board’s responsibility, and what board members consider when deciding on any application, regardless of who is coming before the board.
“Decisions are based on laws regardless of who the applicant is,” Hartney said, adding he’s offended by suggestions, mostly on social media, there was a conflict of interest for the land use board since the applicant asking for an interpretation was a company associated with the mayor and his councilman son.
He said in his opinion the board is harder on FHW Land Holdings members when they appear before the board, noting that when plans for the laundromat site were up for consideration, the applicant wanted a larger building than what was approved.
The land use board is comprised of nine members, all volunteers, he said. If there is ever a conflict of interest for individual members, they either recuse themselves from hearing an application or just don’t attend the meeting when it is on the agenda, according to Hartney.
“Facts and law, that’s what guides the land use board,” he said. “The public can comment. We invite the public to comment. We meet the fourth Wednesday of every month.”
Hartney also explained the borough’s zoning ordinances date back to the 1970s and permit either commercial, residential or mixed use along the Boulevard without having to appear before the land use board.
In May, the board did not approve an application for commercial units to become residential units because it isn’t necessary, he said. It was only asked to make a decision regarding the deed restriction, and that decision would be exactly the same regardless of who the applicant was, he said.
— Gina G. Scala