• September 21, 2019

Upper tables zoning change in Strathmere - Ocean City Sentinel: News

Upper tables zoning change in Strathmere

Barrage of complaints sends issue back to Planning Board

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Posted: Wednesday, June 5, 2019 10:55 am

UPPER TOWNSHIP — Township Committee withdrew an ordinance amending zoning rules after a torrent of complaints from Strathmere property owners who feared the changes would limit their options and possibly harm property values. 

The ordinance, which was set for a public hearing and final vote Tuesday, May 29, included other changes for township zoning, including changes to the business zone in Strathmere. But it was a move to limit density in the seaside section of the township that drew the most anger and which led to the ordinance being withdrawn. 

Holding up a sheaf of papers — apparently the printed-out emails from Strathmere property owners — Mayor Richard Palombo said he had never seen as strong a response on any issue. He said that he and other members of the governing body believed that there was a consensus on the issue in Strathmere or else he would never have supported the zoning change. 

Proposed changes included the introduction of a floor area ratio requirement, limiting the amount of habitable space within a home allowable without a variance, and new limits to architectural features extending above the roofline, including cupolas and decks. The proposal also sought to balance flood protection and neighborhood concerns about overdevelopment, including what some see as excessive building heights. There were also concerns about the “boxiness” of some new construction.

The ordinance proposal will go back to the Planning Board for review and possible reintroduction. That includes the elements aimed at reducing density in Strathmere. 

The proposed changes to Strathmere’s zoning grew out of a subcommittee that was primarily made up of Strathmere residents. Palombo said the subcommittee would have entirely new members and promised that any new subcommittee would include critics of the proposed changes.  

“It will be more balanced. I can’t stress that enough,” Palombo said. 

However, while Palombo is also a member of the Planning Board, he is not its chairman, and as mayor he has no authority over the board, as Committee member Curtis Corson pointed out. 

“Well, that being said, Rich, I understand that, but it’s a subcommittee of the Planning Board. It’s not a subcommittee of the Township Committee,” he said. 

Several summer residents of Strathmere had driven from their year-round homes to attend the meeting, some traveling for hours. Although Township Committee decided to withdraw the ordinance rather than hold a final vote, when an ordinance typically comes up for a public hearing, committee members open the meeting for comment on the ordinance. 

They heard that property owners felt blindsided by the proposal, which several speakers said would have reduced the value of their properties and unfairly limited their options. Nancy Fullam and Eileen Barrett, both Strathmere owners, had emailed other owners of large lots to rally opposition to the change. 

“We reacted because there was shock,” Fullam said. 

She told committee members that she had not heard anything from members of the subcommittee or from the various civic and social organizations in the small community. 

“And we reacted because there was shock that something of this town-wide import would be done in the wintertime by a self-appointed group of a few people without a meeting, without discussion, without broader dissemination in the community, without any effort to assess consensus,” she said. 

She called on the township to find a better means of communicating with Strathmere homeowners. 

“From my standpoint, as someone who went through a period of acrimony between Upper Township and Strathmere, I don’t want to see that again. So we have to have a better system,” she said. “I’m not saying anybody had ill will. I’m not a mind reader. But I do believe we have to approach things in a broader, more public and more inclusive way to avoid misunderstandings.”

The matter has been under discussion since August 2018 over the course of numerous public meetings. The ordinance was the subject of a news story in The Sentinel after introduction and had been advertised prior to the final hearing. 

But summer residents felt the proposal was kept from them, completed in the winter when a small percentage of people are in Strathmere. 

“Where did this concern come from? Because I don’t think it was a concern voiced by the community as a whole,” said Eileen Barrett. “I’m just not sure that we should have a few people that have a pet peeve be able to get this far.” 

“The problem is, we can’t do everything in the summertime,” Palombo said. “I’m not making excuses, but it wasn’t done purposefully to avoid the summer residents of Strathmere.”

He pointed out that there were other elements of the ordinance that had nothing to do with Strathmere. 

Strathmere resident Ted Kingston, who served as the co-chairman of the subcommittee that recommended the changes, said the proposal didn’t come out of nowhere. A member of the Planning Board, he said he has heard numerous complaints about overdevelopment on the barrier island. 

While there have been complaints in the past about how Upper Township handles its only beachfront community, in this case it was Strathmere residents who led the way, Kingston said. There are now two Strathmere residents on the Planning Board, Kingston and Gary Riordan, who was the other co-chairman. The subcommittee included members of the Strathmere Improvement Association and other residents, along with township planner Tiffany Cuvielo and township engineer Paul Dietrich. 

“That’s a unique opportunity, to have a committee of people from Strathmere to look at the Strathmere problem. I mean, I don’t know how much more inclusive you get,” Kingston said. “I don’t think that’s ever been done before. They included a diverse group of people from Strathmere, from the real estate agent all the way to someone who wants to go back to 1980. We had a wide range of people.”

Kingston said the committee worked on consensus, talking over issues for hours if necessary. 

“We talked it out until everybody agreed,” he said. “Nobody was overridden. I was very proud of the way the committee functioned. It was a consensus committee, not a four-three vote or anything.”

Kingston did not get a warm reception from the property owners at the meeting. At one point, their reaction drew a reprimand from Palombo, who said no one interrupted when they spoke. But Palombo also had criticism for the subcommittee and how the proposal was communicated in the community. 

“I don’t know if it was a lack of communication or somebody stirring the pot,” Kingston said.

“You can say that, but I had concerns when I first saw that,” Palombo responded. “I’m not comfortable taking somebody’s land, and that’s basically what this ordinance said. And I said that from the very beginning.”  

Palombo ended the discussion with a promise to listen to the concerns of residents and property owners as the ordinance is reviewed, using a reference to the hit HBO fantasy show “Game of Thrones.” 

“I don’t want anyone to think that we’re sitting on the Iron Throne here and we just dictate, because we don’t,” he said. “We do appreciate people telling us their thoughts. Your opinions mean a lot as we make decisions.”

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