WILDWOOD — The city’s planning/zoning board decided Monday night that a group of veterans living together in a collection of single-family units where they would receive various social services did not constitute a family.
Sheldon Lee, owner of 411 Taylor Ave. LLC, came to the board Monday to argue that the homes he built on the 400 block of West Taylor Avenue could be rented to struggling veterans without changing the property’s use, but a standing-room only crowd at City Hall disagreed.
More than two dozen people spoke during the meeting’s public comment section, and all said the neighborhood — which is zoned for residential use — is not the place for what they consider to be a group home for veterans coping with a variety of health, social and economic problems.
“We’re a seasonal community. We don’t have year-round businesses. We don’t have (year-round) jobs,” resident Sandra Richardson said.
Richardson, like many other speakers, said the resort, which has high unemployment and little to do in the winter months, has nothing to offer veterans dealing with mental problems, recovering from addictions or coping with joblessness.
“It’s not going to be a service to the veterans. It’s going to be a disservice to the veterans,” she said.
Atlantic City-based attorney Nick Talvacchia, representing Lee, told the board that under Wildwood’s guidelines, a family could be either one or more person living together related by blood or marriage or a collective of people living together with a distinctive domestic character who cook together.
“What’s proposed for our veterans is family living,” Talvacchia said. “They’ve served our country. It’s now time to serve them.”
The plan he proposed was to have seven four-bedroom units rented to veterans under a program sponsored by ENPHRONT Veterans Services, a not-for-profit organization based in the Bronx, N.Y.
Five or six veterans would share a four-bedroom home and would each pay $300 a month. The rest of the cost, $35 per day per veteran, would be paid by the federal government.
Last November, U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., said ENPHRONT was to receive a $347,215 grant for its housing programs, and named Wildwood as one of the locations where the money would “help create 48 beds.”
Talvacchia said Bill Southrey, executive director of the Atlantic City Rescue Mission, would manage the property.
Southrey told the board that the criterion for choosing who lived in the units would be “someone who needs help and assistance in their life.”
“They’ll eat together. They’ll cook together,” Southrey said. “We envision their days filled with activity.”
Southrey said each veteran’s needs would be assessed and they would receive whatever care they needed, whether it was counseling, nursing care or learning life skills.
“Each person comes as an individual, and they come with their individual needs,” he said. Southrey also said the veterans would not receive treatment on-site for addictions. “This is not an alcohol and drug-treatment center,” he said.
The veterans would live in Wildwood for as long as two years and an average of 16 months, he said.
Board member Virginia Nichols asked if Lee expected to sell the homes and found he could not following the end of the island’s recent building boom, leading to the decision to try to rent them to veterans.
“That’s absolutely true,” Lee said.
Most of the residents who spoke said they support veterans, and many of the speakers were veterans, but all said Taylor Avenue is not the place for veterans in need.
They urged the board to support zoning officer Larry Booy’s decision, in which he said what Lee was proposing was a change of use from the site’s residential zoning.
“It’s a residential neighborhood, and they’re operating a business,” resident Bruce Rappoport said.
VeAnn Sackett said what was being proposed was “an institution,” not a family.
“We have nothing to offer these veterans,” she said.
Resident Robert Davis challenged the idea that what was being proposed could be defined as a family home.
“This has been referred to all night as a facility. I have never referred to my home as a facility,” Davis said.
In the end, the five voting board members agreed with the public’s comments and found the proposed veterans housing would constituted a change in use for the residential neighborhood.
If Lee wants to rent to the veterans, he will have to seek a use variance.
As the crowd dispersed just after 9 p.m., Talvacchia said he and his client will have to evaluate their options.
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