CAPE MAY — A former mayor here is claiming the ground underneath a proposed 38-acre park project is toxic and plans should be brought to the public for a vote.

City officials, however, said they are fully aware of the land’s history and the park project, which only includes surface-level development, will be safe.

Jerry Gaffney, a Columbia Avenue resident and former mayor, said when he was in office he recalls seeing studies on pollution at the city’s former coal gasification plant off Lafayette Street. From the 1880s to 1937 the plant converted coal to what was called “town gas” to power lights and heat homes. After a series of utility company mergers, the site is now owned by the Morristown-based Jersey Central Power & Light.

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“I question what’s in that land. I urge you not to go forward with anything. Submit it to voters as a binding referendum. It is contaminated soil,” Gaffney told City Council last week.

Mayor Ed Mahaney noted the Cape May Environmental Commission endorsed the project and the state Department of Environmental Protection will sign off on the land once JCP&L finishes cleaning up the site.

“JCP&L has the responsibility to remediate that. It’s in the third remediation phase and it has to be approved by the DEP. There will be no excavation there, just parking and surface-level recreation,” Mahaney said.

There has already been quite a bit of remediation work. In 1989, soil was removed and replaced with clean fill at a small park on the property, the Wise-Anderson Park. A few years later, underground storage tanks were removed. In 2002, JCP&L removed soil again on Lafayette Street, Broad Street, St. John Street and Osborne Court.

Most of the 38 acres are not linked to the coal gasification plant and its pollutants, which are mainly coal tar and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs. The land includes the Cape May Elementary School property, which would use the park for educational purposes and is installing a wind turbine as part of the effort. It also includes the site of a 19th century golf course that once included tennis courts, archery and pigeon shooting attractions. Much of the land is wetlands, which would be highlighted by new nature trails along Cape Island Creek.

The city expects to get some land from JCP&L once it is deemed clean and it is negotiating to purchase the 1.7-acre tract where Vance’s Bar use to operate as well as two residential lots on St. John Street.

Gaffney has raised such questions before. As a member of the local Planning Board in 2006, he questioned a proposal to turn the Vance’s Bar property into a condominium project called The Riviera at Cape May. He said at the time he was “suspicious of the whole area” and it was the “unknowns that bother me.” The board eventually voted down the project in a 5-2 decision. A judge later ordered the city to issue approvals but the real estate market tanked and the development company went bankrupt. The city is now trying to buy the property from a bank.

The issues are not tax related. Mahaney notes the DEP already has agreed to fund about half the land acquisition costs, $1.6 million, using Green Acres and Blue Acres monies. A city open space fund created in 2001 would pay the rest. The fact that the city has its own open space fund, collected from local property taxes, boosts state funding from the normal 25 percent to 50 percent. Mahaney said Gov. Chris Christie has endorsed the project.

The area already includes basketball and tennis courts, a Little League field and a dog park on land JCP&L leases to the city. Adding bocce, nature trails, picnic pavilions, shuffleboard, soccer and other amenities have been discussed. Mahaney said the public will make the final decisions on what to add.

Mahaney said the project has been “fully vetted.” The public already has seen conceptual plans for the park and Mahaney said those plans helped draw the state funding. City Manager Bruce MacLeod noted JCP&L also held a community meeting on the remediation plan several years ago.

One area that has not been cleaned up is Vance’s Bar because it still has construction on it from an establishment that dates to the 1960s. The defunct bar is often mentioned as an eyesore, so merely removing it could bring benefits.

“Is Vance’s Bar an appropriate entrance for our visitors to town? Decide for yourselves,” MacLeod said.

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