ATLANTIC CITY - City officials are preparing to formally oppose the state's takeover of its development powers within the new Tourism District, calling the plan an "ill-intentioned assault" on the city and its elected officials.
City Council is scheduled to vote on a resolution Wednesday opposing the transfer of planning and zoning authority to the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority.
The state agency is poised to control development issues within the still-undefined district, which will likely include major city parcels such as properties along Atlantic and Pacific avenues, Bader Field, the Marina District, the Boardwalk and the beach.
Councilman Frank Gilliam, head of the council's Planning and Development Committee, said keeping planning and zoning operations in the city's hands would be a cost-saving measure for the CRDA, noting state Attorney General Paula Dow's recent acknowledgment that funding for the district will not initially be what was once expected.
"We can help the district by keeping these functions," he said. "In some aspects, the city hasn't been the friendliest to work with, but I would venture planning and zoning is one of the most stellar operations here."
Susan Ney Thompson, the authority's interim executive director, insisted Tuesday that it is essential to fulfill all of the mandates within the legislation that created the Tourism District.
"Part of the benefit to controlling planning and zoning is we can offer a new streamlined way to handle those issues," she said. "It sends a clear message to the development community that there's a fresh start here."
The measure also demands that the state Legislature draft "corrective legislation" to keep the powers of planning and zoning fully in the city's hands.
"You want to be respectful of City Council, but the process we went through to get these bills passed is not one I see opening up any time soon," said state Sen. Jim Whelan, D-Atlantic. "We should give these bills an opportunity to work."
Republican Assemblyman Vince Polistina noted that there is language included in the legislation that requires the state to reassess the operation of the Tourism District after two years.
"The time to talk about the issues was before this became law," he said. "There's always the ability to look at it down the line."
Mayor Lorenzo Langford has led the city's vocal opposition to ceding control of some of its developmental powers to the state, but council had yet to pass anything formally. City Council President William "Speedy" Marsh is sponsoring the measure, but did not return requests for an interview today.
Council's planned vote will come less than a week from the launch of the Tourism District, which will occur on Tuesday, April 19, during a CRDA board meeting.
Under the CRDA, developers would apply for variances and other development-related requests through a hearing officer. That officer, who would likely have a civil engineering background, would consider all applications before making recommendations to the authority's legislative body. The authority recently began advertising to hire that hearing officer. The process is modeled after those at other governmental agencies, including the Meadowlands Commission.
The authority is expected to adopt Atlantic City's municipal land-use law at its April 19 meeting, a temporary action as it develops its own policies regarding development in the district. The CRDA board will also vote to create a new land-use division within the authority.
As the authority prepares to launch the district, it is continuing to solicit questions, suggestions and concerns from residents and community groups. The agency held its fourth of five meetings Tuesday night at the Atlantic City Convention Center, which held arguably the smallest crowd the community meetings has attracted.
One attendee questioned the use of a planning hearing officer, insisting that one person making planning and zoning decisions would be "problematic."
Paul Weiss, CRDA's chief counsel, said the hearing officer would act more as a "fact finder," ultimately bringing his or her recommendations to the CRDA board for approval after a hearing. He also said that the city would be briefed on major development agreements and approvals and would have a venue to express concerns during the official development hearings.
"Through that hearing process," he said, "the city still has a voice."
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