BUENA VISTA TOWNSHIP - Late in a three-hour meeting Monday night, township committee voted to remove three rented structures in Richland Village from the list of eight publicly owned properties in the struggling tourist area that may be sold or demolished, and some in the audience were relieved.
They didn't want to lose the Post Office and Richland Deli, which share one building, or It's a Toy Store and the nonprofit Patcong Valley Model Railroaders Club in two other structures.
Eric Cimino, 13, of the East Vineland section of the township, got emotional when he tried to read his statement of support for the model railroad club. A family member came up and read it for him, asking the committee to keep the club in town, so kids such as Eric could continue to learn the hobby. He was happy to hear it would stay, said his grandmother Mary Motter.
But many in the overflow crowd remained angry that the properties, bought with about $900,000 in municipal bonds and some of $3.1 million in grant money spent on the village starting in 2004, are being rented for as little as $500 per month.
"You're not making anything at $500," said Mary Ann Levari, who ran for committee as a Republican in 2012 and lost.
Mayor Sue Barber had read a statement listing all of the township-owned buildings and vacant lots in the village, what the municipality paid for them, how much they generate in rent - although most are vacant structures or land - and how much an engineering firm has estimated it would cost to fix them to an acceptable standard. The estimates for renovation of each of seven structures ranged from almost nothing to $237,500.
Three buildings have current renters. They are:
1256 Harding Highway, housing It's a Toy Store, bought for $80,000 in 2005 and which now rents for about $530 a month, although owner Frank Mosentoff said he has invested a lot of money and time into rehabbing the interior;
1274 Harding Highway housing the Post Office and Richland Deli, bought in 2005 for $275,000 and bringing in a total of about $2,098 a month ($525 from the deli and $1573 from the Post Office);
And 1308 Harding Highway, housing Patcong Valley Model Railroad Club, purchased in 2005 for $140,000 and bringing in $500 a month. But members said they have invested at least $118,000 in interior improvements.
Committee member Chuck Chiarello, who favors continuing to hold onto the buildings and trying to develop the village, challenged Barber's renovation figures, saying they were exaggerations.
But most of the 30 or so residents who spoke seemed to have given up on the idea of Richland Village becoming a train-oriented tourist attraction.
"We're not go to get this in Richland. It's not going to happen. We've been diligent in trying, but we have to stop beating a dead horse," former Democratic Committeeman Mike Rivera said to general applause. "They're not coming to Richland," he said of tourist destination developers. "We've got to work with what we've got."
Other residents stressed that the township shouldn't be in the real estate business.They also felt their county and school taxes have increased to cover the share of tax-exempt, township owned properties.
The idea, when the township started acquiring property in the heart of the small commercial area on Route 40 in 2004, was to sell the parcels to a developer who would create a Smithville-like destination, Committeeman Peter Bylone said Tuesday.
Nationwide advertising for such a developer brought in no serious offers, said Bylone, who has been on the governing body since 1988 and lost in the Democratic primary in June. He will lose his seat at the end of the year.
The committee still believed in 2004 it was possible for Cape May Seashore Lines, a startup historic train ride provider, to run a train from Richland Village to Cape May and back, and tap into the large number of tourists there. But members found out the tracks would have to be greatly updated to allow passenger service on about a 10-mile stretch, and it would be prohibitively expensive.
The line has only been able to operate a 30-mile round trip between Richland and Tuckahoe; and a14-mile round trip between Rio Grande, Cold Spring Village, and Cape May. It operates regularly in Richland only around the winter holidays.
"When Chuck (Chiarello, then mayor and now committeeman) came to the township committee with the concept of Richland Village, and the train to Cape May, I bought into it," Bylone said. "Our mistake was not investigating if the tracks would go to Cape May with a passenger train."
The failure of that idea has led to a split in the five-member, all Democrat committee, with members Chiarello and Teresa Kelly on one side, still wanting to pursue the Richland Village development; and Barber and committee members Bylone and Richard Harlan on the other, ready to give up and sell properties to recoup investment.
Bylone said he, Barber and Harlan began saying "no" to more investment in Richland, and it led to the break with Chiarello and Kelly in 2011.
The winners of the Democratic primary will run unopposed in November, and are supporters of Chiarello, so when they join the governing body in January the balance of power will shift in Chiarello's favor, with a likely 4-1 majority.
Contact Michelle Brunetti Post: