Editorial that Appeared in the Press of Atlantic City on November 16, 2018

Ocean City land buy could work yet with public input

Several months of preparation by Ocean City to purchase a 1.9-acre lot came to naught recently when the city and property seller — faced with a referendum on the deal — called it off.

City officials can learn from this and maybe still make this acquisition of the relatively large parcel in the densely developed town. The purchase can make sense and even many referendum petitioners favored it, just with more transparency and public input — and at a lower price.

Mayor Jay Gillian and City Council arranged to pay a non-negotiable $9 million to Klause Enterprises for the former car dealership. Most people heard of the possibility when council introduced a bond ordinance to fund the purchase.

That was their first mistake. Taxpayers and other citizens don’t like it when their elected representatives spring a done deal on them, especially one that seems to spend more of their money than necessary. The civic group Fairness in Taxes gathered the signatures of more than 597 residents in favor of putting the deal before the public in a referendum.

When the group looked into how the city arrived at a $9 million price for the property, they found questionable appraisal practices, including unreasonable assumptions about what could be built on it and the use of comparable sales of properties much nearer to the beach than the lot. City officials should have made sure the appraisals they had done in private were above reproach.

Then city officials criticized the citizens for wanting to slow down the process and take a look at how the city had proceeded. The mayor told residents that if they signed the petition and forced a public vote on the deal, the city and Klause Enterprises would abandon the sale and the lot would be used for 29 coastal cottages.

But one of the property owners who secured that grandfathered permit to build the high-density housing said he withdrew his lots from the proposal, so it is no longer valid. This put city officials in the awkward position of arguing in favor of Klause Enterprises being able to build housing, when their opposition to same was their reason for buying the lot.

City officials haven’t offered a reason why they needed to set up the lot purchase in private, without public awareness or input. Next time they should follow the proven path of publicly proposing a project, providing information, developing public support and then proceeding.

It’s still possible in this case. The lot is still there. The public probably supports its acquisition if the deal looks fair and reasonable, especially if a desirable use of the property is planned.

Ocean City just needs to do what it should have done from the start — make its case to the public, be open about the basis and details of the agreement, accept and respond in good faith to public input, then proceed if agreement is possible on terms supported by the public. That’s how local government should work.

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