Environmental Commission wants open space plan

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OCEAN CITY — A plan for preserving open space is in the works for Ocean City.

The Ocean City Environmental Commission, which has been advocating for such a move, recently presented to City Council on its open space plan for the city.

The group seeks to increase the amount of open space on the crowded barrier island, and hopes to bring in state money to help do so.

Environmental Commission Chairman Peter Ault said that creating an open space plan allows for the city to apply for a matching grant through the state’s Green Acres Program.

Already in Cape May County, residents pay into an open space preservation fund through county property taxes.

“Since its inception in 1989, there have been 42 acres of land bought including three parcels in Ocean City,” Ault said of the county program.

They include the Bayside Center, the Palmer recreation field and the Scarborough property on the 200-block of Bay Avenue.

“In fact, for at least two of these properties … the city of Ocean City did actually did apply for a Green acres matching grant,” Ault said.

He said that, philosophically, the county believes the city should apply for the green acres grants.

As far as developed open space, there is 334 acres in the city, not including wetlands.

“You guys have probably seen a lot of numbers … on acreage of open space in Ocean City,” Ault said to council. “The thing that I want to focus in on… is open space per capita. We look at it as a function of how much open space per person.”

In the winter, there is 970 square feet of open space per resident. In the summer, 145 square feet per resident. Ault said that the city’s summer numbers are on par with places like Miami or Los Angeles. In the winter, they are more similar to Portland, Ore. or Houston, Texas.

Ault said that the conservation plan, which is part of the local master plan, was adopted by the Planning Board on June 10, 2009.

“In it there’s a couple pages that talk about open space,” he said. “One of the things that we think the city should do is expand that open space section to be adequate to apply for a New Jersey Green Acres block grant.”

The section should include open space selection criteria, some examples of which Ault provided to council. The grant will allow the city to get money for certain sections of the plan. According to the state Department of Environmental Protection website, if Green Acres approves a town’s open space plan, it is eligible for a 50 percent matching grant.

“Now you’re going through the master plan rewrite process so hopefully the consultant that’s doing that could help out with this,” Ault suggested.

He said that linear recreation systems, part of the Planning Board’s plan, are a good criteria for open space selection, as is adjacency to already designated space.

“The notion would be that the open space plan would talk about finding open space in those corridors,” Ault said.

“We wanted to put together some project ideas,” he said, listing several ideas and adding that they are not etched in stone, but deserving of further exploration.

One project idea was at 30th Street and Haven Avenue.

“It is a drainage challenged area,” Ault said. “Certainly 2,000 more square feet of impervious surface wouldn’t help the area.”

Here, he suggested a rainwater retention system that might improve drainage while creating open space.

“The other key element is it’s on the bike path,” he said.

Drive-in businesses along Haven Avenue should also be considered, Ault said.

“There’s no reason that any of those businesses couldn’t be acquired for open space,” he said. “Open space doesn’t need to be presently an empty lot; it could have a building on it. You can even keep that building. The building has to be incidental to the property value. You’ll think of the Bayside Center where we’ve kept the building.”

The Bayfront business district should also be considered for open space, Ault said, although he admitted it would be a challenge. Beachfront properties are also viable for open space. Ault mentioned the Schilling estate and said there are other properties that could be considered.

“The point we really want to make is to give you guys sort of a path forward,” Ault said.

“I think we have the opportunity to develop a plan and begin executing it,” he said.

Ault took questions from council, beginning with Councilman Scott Ping who asked whether acquiring a beachfront property, which has been established due to beach fills, with green acres money would work against the city when it applies for its next beach fill.

“If it looks like were filling in to buy?” Ping asked.

Ault said it was an interesting question and didn’t know the answer

“I have a hard time believing that it would, and that’s an interesting question,” Ault said.

Councilman Keith Hartzell said it’s a fantastic framework for the Planning Board to work this into the master plan.

“I think this makes a lot of sense. There’s a lot to look at,” Hartzell said

Councilman Roy Wagner spoke about several lots in his ward that may be suitable for open space preservation.

“The one comment I will make about the idea behind having this open space plan would be that you wouldn’t be obligated to focus in on a parcel whose price might change while you deliberate or an opportunity that might be fleeting,” Ault said. He said it was important to have a long-term vision.

“I agree, don’t get that specific for a master plan,” Wagner said.

City Council also approved a resolution requesting the county Freeholders to consider submitting a New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection Green Acres assistance application at its Nov. 29 meeting.

Several other Cape May County municipalities have approved resolutions pushing the county to apply for Green Acres money. So far, the county has been resistant. County administrator Stephen O’Connor has said that the state Green Acres funds come with too many restrictions. The county puts aside $5 million a year in its open space fund.

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