CAPE MAY — After hearing hours of testimony slamming the proposal, the Planning Board rejected a plan to designate a block near the Washington Street Mall an area in need of redevelopment.

Residents turned out in force on an icy Tuesday evening to lambast the report, which some speakers said sounded like it described a block in Camden rather than Cape May. Residents spilled from the City Hall meeting room out into the corridor and lined the balcony overlooking the room.

Several speakers took issue with any suggestion Cape May suffers from anything that could be described as blight.

The report by board engineer Craig Hurless presented the block between Lafayette and Washington Street, running from Ocean Street to Franklin Street, in dire terms.

“The lack of investment in the study area has resulted in reduced property values, a lack of new jobs, and lack of highest and best land use and lack of development in an area designated for growth,” Hurless told the board early in the four-hour meeting. “These conditions have an overall detrimental effect on a community.”

The block includes Cape May’s only supermarket and one of the city's largest parking lots, retail shops, historic buildings and churches. It also includes City Hall and the police station, both housed in the old Cape May High School, and the Fire Department.

Mayor Chuck Lear has created a commission to look at places to relocate City Hall and build a new headquarters for the Police and Fire departments, plans that loomed large in Tuesday’s meeting.

But they did not loom as large as developer Curtis Bashaw, the managing partner of the company that owns the parking lot and the building that houses the Acme supermarket on Lafayette. He’s well known in town for the extensive renovation of the once-dilapidated Congress Hall hotel and other businesses, and has long been an advocate for redevelopment. Several speakers indicated it was Bashaw who initiated the city’s move to create a redevelopment zone.

Bashaw did not attend the Tuesday meeting and could not be reached for comment Wednesday morning.

Board member Bill Bezaire, unanimously reelected chairman at the start of the meeting, called Bashaw “the elephant not in the room.” Although Bezaire said the report was just the first step toward creating a redevelopment zone and that no plans were set, much less a developer chosen, Bezaire recused himself at the start of the meeting, citing his business dealings with Bashaw.

If the Planning Board approved the report, it would have returned to City Council for potential adoption through an ordinance, beginning a process to name the block an area in need of redevelopment. That would have offered broad tools for the renovation of the area, including creating a redevelopment plan, issuing bonds, leasing or selling lands without public bidding and using tax-abatement programs. One of the strongest tools, eminent domain, or the taking of private property for public use, was specifically excluded from Cape May’s plans for the block.

The biggest building on the block is the Acme, which Hurless reported does not meet current code.

“Observations are that conditions are generally dilapidated and obsolete,” he reported, a conclusion used for other commercial properties as well.

Two former mayors spoke against the plan, including Jerry Gaffney, who is on the committee searching for a new home for the police, firefighters and City Hall, and Edward Mahaney, whom Lear beat for the mayor’s seat in the 2016 election.

Mahaney said he did not oppose using redevelopment zones but criticized Hurless’ work as failing to meet the requirements under state law.

Another former mayor, Planning Board member Robert Elwell, faulted the conclusion that many of the buildings in the block were dilapidated or obsolete.

“If they were that bad, the code enforcement would be shutting them down. With all due respect to our engineer, I don’t see any hard evidence in the report,” he said.

Board member Jerry Inderwies had suggested delaying a vote to gather more information. But the residents in the meeting shouted for a decision that night, rather than a delay.

Eight of the board members voted no on the report. Lear voted yes, calling it a missed opportunity. He said back in 2009, the city’s master plan cited the area as needing redevelopment.

Board member Michael Jones, the only member to join Lear in voting yes, said earlier in the meeting that the rents and property values in Washington Commons are about half those of the shops of the Washington Street Mall.

“People just won’t cross the street to get to Washington Commons,” he said.

The only voice in favor of the report from the public was attorney Anthony Monzo, representing Washington Commons Equities LLC, owner of the parking lot and Acme building, of which Bashaw is the managing partner. According to Monzo, much of the impetus for the drive is to support a renovation to the Acme building. The city sees keeping that supermarket open as a priority.

He supported Hurless’ assessment as a comprehensive report from an expert. The speakers at the meeting are not, he said.

“None of them are planners. None of them are experts. And they’re giving you ideas that I don’t think are accurate in terms of the process,” Monzo said.

He said Bashaw does not want the Acme to leave Cape May.

“They will lose the supermarket if this site is not developed in a way that’s economically feasible and with the flexibility that would go into a redevelopment plan,” he said. “Mr. Bashaw’s interest is in redeveloping the Acme and expanding it, entering into a long-term lease and, in the meantime, addressing some of the other concerns.”

Monzo said including the entire block makes good planning sense.

Mahaney suggested the proposal would likely end up costing the city tens of millions of dollars and said there is nothing keeping Bashaw from upgrading the Acme without the plan.

“Curtis Bashaw has the right to update, upgrade and renovate his Washington Commons properties and shopping area without obligating the Cape May taxpayers to subsidize his improvements while also forgoing property-tax and related revenue for city operations for years to come,” Mahaney said.

After the meeting, Monzo said of Bashaw, “He only wants what’s best for the city.”

Stay informed! Sign up to receive top headlines from Cape May County delivered to your inbox.