EGG HARBOR TOWNSHIP — Months of public disagreement over the blocked access road through the undeveloped NextGen Aviation Research and Technology Park ended Tuesday as the South Jersey Economic Development District opened the road.
Gates were opened at 5 p.m. following a vote by the district’s executive committee, SJEDD Executive Director Gordon Dahl said. Changes were made to an operating agreement with Atlantic County that made the deal more palatable to the district, Dahl said.
Chief among the changes is the term of the pact. The agreement will last two years or until an alternative connector road proposed by the South Jersey Transportation Authority is constructed, whichever comes first. Previously, the deadline had been the completion of the connector project, for which there is no deadline.
“We hope that the park’s going to have tenants. As that development evolves, all the parties will be a player in how the traffic is handled there. We’ll come back together in two years to reevaluate,” Dahl said. “We came to a mutual agreement that makes sense and accommodates everybody’s issues and concerns.”
Dahl padlocked a gate across the access road in December, citing concerns about traffic, safety and liability — and prompting questions about whether the decision was made in retaliation against Atlantic County. The county, which had been a member of the district for more than three decades, withdrew this year after discovering that the district may be in financial disarray.
The district subsequently refused to sign an agreement that would have allowed Atlantic County to operate the road, which the county helped finance with $2.5 million in taxpayer dollars. Last week, Atlantic County demanded that the district return the county’s contribution if the road was not going to be accessible by the public.
County Exective Dennis Levinson said that demand will be dropped, but he is not yet convinced that this is the end of what’s become a contentious relationship with the district. He also questioned why Dahl waited for board approval to open the road yet did not seek board approval to close it.
“What’s occurred up until now is inexplicable, so I’m not confident about anything right now,” Levinson said. “All of the problems that occurred there were certainly avoidable. It’s a shame the public had to go through this. (The district) had to succumb to pressure. I’ve never dealt with an agency like this in all the years I’ve been in politics.”
The boulevard-style access road runs through the park, connecting Amelia Earhart Boulevard and Delilah Road. County officials have said that closing the road, which is one lane in each direction with a 25 mph speed limit, has contributed to traffic backups at the newly reconfigured Airport Circle. A traffic light at the intersection of Deliliah Road and the access road has been set to blink yellow and should be operating with red and green lights by 10 or 11 a.m. today.
Levinson said significant pressure was put on SJEDD to open the road, particularly from Atlantic County Freeholder Frank Formica and U.S. Rep. Frank LoBiondo, R-2nd.
“What we want to do is keep the pressure on,” Levinson said.
The relationship between the district and the county has deteriorated since the county had its auditor review the district’s financial position in the NextGen project, finding thousands of dollars in debt. No buildings have been constructed at the park, which was first announced in October 2005 with the promise of 2,000 high-paying jobs. The district is under pressure to turn over a lease for the park’s land to the park’s board — signifying a change in the project’s leadership and direction.
A watchdog report by The Press of Atlantic City last month revealed that contractors who have completed work at the park are owed $495,000. One of those contractors has since sued the district and others have threatened to do the same.
The county expects to receive a signed copy of the road’s operation agreement from Dahl today, Assistant County Counsel Anthony Pagano said. Under the agreement, the county will handle cleaning and maintenance and indemnify SJEDD should any legal disputes arise regarding the road.
“I fully expect that the problems with this road are behind us,” Pagano said.
Asked if the county would receive a key to the road’s gate that has been padlocked for months, Levinson’s chief of staff, Howard Kyle, said that’s unlikely.
“The district still has site control over that land,” Kyle said. “But the bottom line is, it is a step in the right direction.”
The district still owes money to the county and other contractors.
According to the terms of the operation agreement, the assignment does not relieve the district of its duty to make outstanding payments on valid invoices for design and construction of work at the park.
Last month, the county issued a default letter to the district after a month passed since an $82,903 invoice was issued for work at the park. The county threatened to take legal action if the bill was not paid by Monday.
Kyle said an incomplete payment has been made, but could not immediately provide any other information.
Contact Jennifer Bogdan