The Wildwood Crest branch of the Cape May County Library sits in a prized location, right on the beachfront at Ocean Avenue — and that’s why the borough is moving it two blocks away.
Having such prime beachfront real estate used for a public library might seem like a waste at a time when municipalities are looking for every source of tax revenue available.
In September 2010, for example, a property on the 7800 block of Atlantic Avenue, just a few blocks from the Margate Library at 8100 Atlantic, sold for $1.35 million.
A Ventnor commissioner called the oceanfront location of his community’s library branch “unfortunate.”
But not all towns are looking to put some distance between books and the beach. Stone Harbor is planning to build its library branch adjacent to the Atlantic, complete with pristine views. So is a seaside library worth it? Or do the drawbacks outweigh the positives?
In October, the Cape May County Board of Chosen Freeholders awarded a $5.3 million contract to build a 13,500-square-foot library, a structure that will be almost twice as large as the existing library branch. Construction is expected to be completed by this time next year.
County and borough officials cited the fact that the plot on which the library will be built is currently a parking lot, not a potential development site.
“The odds of selling it for residential use are slim to none,” Stone Harbor Mayor Suzanne Walters said. We figure by putting it in the oceanfront — and the rules the way they are with the DEP, it’s 53 feet back from the bulkhead — we figure it could be a major attraction.”
Being a county branch, it could attract people from outside Stone Harbor, Walters said.
“They could bring a book, a cup of coffee, and look out over the water,” she said. “And if someone then shops at the stores, it’s good for everyone.”
Walters said that most other city-owned parcels have already been subdivided, and the potential value is more substantial. She did acknowledge that there has been some resistance to the project, including some residents concerned about the effect such a large building would have on beach views from First Avenue.
Cape May County Library Director Deborah Poillon also added there were concerns from residents “who did not want to give up that much beachfront area.”
“Parking is also an issue,” Poillon said. “But parking is an issue at any island branch, frankly.”
The Wildwood Crest branch, meanwhile, is another story. The library originally ended up on Ocean Avenue because a private library used to be at the site, Poillon said. The borough recently asked the county to vacate the property in favor of another location two blocks away.
That site was purchased with $950,000 in county funds and $50,000 in municipal funds, said Wildwood Crest Administrator Kevin Yecco, who could explain the decision to move the beachfront library in one word.
“Obviously, ‘beachfront’ is the operative word here,” Yecco said. “The real estate market has changed, and the governing body might consider selling that land and offsetting taxes, or renovating it to use it for a historical society or tourism attraction. ... It hasn’t been finalized, and they’ll take a look at all alternatives.”
There are other reasons as well — the current facility is not “state of the art,” Yecco said, and the new location will be twice as large and contain meeting rooms.
“Beachfront property is the greatest ratable. ... This governing body or the next governing body will make a determination on what to do with that land,” he said.
Margate Mayor Mike Becker said there is no real movement to look into another location for his community’s library.
“It’s been very minimal,” Becker said of such a proposal. “A couple of years back, there was talk about doing something with the library, but it never really gained any ground.”
“We really don’t have a lot of places to put the library. We don’t have a lot of open space,” he said.
Library Director Gwen Meade said the original library was in a “tiny little cottage” at Jerome and Ventnor avenues, similar to one still standing behind a restaurant. “The whole building may be 14-by-14 (feet) — tiny, but the available space at the time.”
The opportunity for a larger facility was not one to pass up. “And the library does a great job,” Becker added. “It’s a really special library, being where it is.”
Farther along Atlantic Avenue, the Ventnor branch of the Atlantic County Library has been in its beachfront location for decades.
“The beachfront (location) has its own charms,” Atlantic County Library spokeswoman Beverly Bird said. “A lot of people come in wet and sandy off the beach ... and it’s great for convenience. People come in and pick up something to read on the beach. And at the Ventnor branch, we have Wifi access on the beach.”
Lack of parking in the summer is a drawback, Bird said, “But parking in the entire town is adventurous. That is a challenge.”
Ventnor Commissioner John Piatt, meanwhile, said that the city missed an opportunity recently by expanding the building rather than looking for alternate locations.
“It’s kind of disappointing to us that when the library was (rebuilt), another location wasn’t considered,” Piatt said.
In 2007, the community center, which contains the library, was expanded onto the former site of an ice rink, which had been funded through state grants — grants that required the property to be set aside for recreation, Piatt said.
“The city went and built the library over top of that,” he said, “and now we’re subject to having to square with the state.”
A study, partially underway, will determine the assessed value of the property and determine what the city owes the state in terms of providing an equal area of waterfront land for recreation, he said.
“It’s a valuable ratable area, and we have other areas available,” Piatt said. “We could have negotiated a better price over near the school (on Lafayette Avenue) where the former golf course was. But it’s all water under the bridge now. It’s a really large structure and a lot of space in that structure is wasted. The upstairs is rarely used. It’s a beautiful building, I don’t deny it, but we’re disappointed for multiple reasons.”
While the city will continue to look for other sites, “I don’t know what we could possibly do now. It’s something we may have to live with for a while.”
Contact Steven Lemongello: