ATLANTIC CITY - The majority of City Council supported a measure to allow the city - not state officials - to retain control over planning and zoning procedures in the Tourism District, a vote that sparked criticism from Gov. Chris Christie.
City Council voted 7-1 Wednesday to seek changes to state legislation that in a few weeks would put planning and zoning functions within the Atlantic City Tourism District in the hands of the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority. The move does not change anything, but is another example of the outrage and indignation some city officials have expressed over being cut out of state initiatives to revive the resort, despite the Christie administration's stated efforts to engage the local government.
The Tourism District is expected to include the city's Boardwalk and beaches, Bader Field, the casino district and other parts of the city. The boundaries are set to be finalized a week from now. The CRDA will officially take control of the zone May 1.
After that, developers who want permission to build within the Tourism District would have to go through the CRDA instead of the city's planning and zoning boards, which would continue to rule on building proposals throughout the rest of the city. However, local officials want to keep control over those decisions, regardless of where the affected property lies.
Councilman Frank Gilliam said that could save money, which is even more critical after a revelation that the district will have less money than expected. The state has determined that regulatory changes will save $10 million, half the original estimate.
Councilman Tim Mancuso was the only councilman to vote against changing S-11, as the legislation is called, to keep control over planning and zoning with the city. Councilman Dennis Mason works for the CRDA, so he had to abstain.
Mancuso said he voted against the measure because he has not heard concerns about planning and zoning responsibility at any of the CRDA's community meetings about the Tourism District. He said his primary concern is ensuring the district encompasses the entire Boardwalk, including the part that extends from Albany Avenue to the city's border with Ventnor.
Gilliam, who sits on City Council's Planning and Development Committee, said recent discussions with CRDA officials about planning and zoning within the Tourism District grew "heated."
"We realize this thing fell on both our doorsteps, and we have to handle it," Gilliam said. "But the planning and zoning department Atlantic City has, it's a stellar department. Ask any developer or person who's come into Atlantic City."
Upon hearing about the opposition and demands for reform Wednesday, Christie slammed the city government. He said chronic mismanagement and wrongdoing diminished the investment climate and reputation of the city, forcing his hand.
"Unfortunately, it's become a necessary situation because of the complete incompetence and corruption of government in Atlantic City (for) decades," Christie said.
Christie said he was not referring to officials in power now. But he noted as evidence of the problem former elected officials he had prosecuted while serving as the U.S. Attorney for New Jersey.
"This was the best alternative to try and turn Atlantic City around, and return it to being an economic engine for that region and for the entire state," Christie said of the intervention. "So I understand the City Council and the mayor are upset about it, but ... they should have done something about it long before I came to town."
Mayor Lorenzo Langford was unavailable for comment late Wednesday.
Councilman Mo Delgado said he and other city officials had been optimistic that Christie's reforms would eventually consider the residents of Atlantic City, despite initial doubts about his intentions. That hope has since faded, Delgado said.
"The choices he's made, they're going to benefit intentions he has and those intentions ... seem to coddle those outside from Atlantic City who have no other interest other than a financial one in Atlantic City," Delgado said. "We're going to keep moving on the best we can."
Delgado said the governor's comments about corruption in the city did not surprise him.
"Tough talk - it's what they like to do, he was a federal prosecutor," Delgado said. "In one respect, it's disrespectful, but in another, it's expected of him."
Since November, Langford has described the governor's plan as a state takeover and voiced objections to aspects of it, including the size and shape of the district.
The CRDA already is taking applications for land use hearing, regulation and administrative officer positions in anticipation of assuming zoning and planning duties within the Tourism District, job ads show.
The hearing officer will act as the lead fact-finder and report back to the CRDA board before members decide whether to approve a project. Land use staffers will comprise the agency's forthcoming land use division, one of three divisions that will operate within the authority under its intended organizational structure. The others are the city Special Improvement District and Atlantic City Convention & Visitor's Authority.
Council also voted 8-0 Wednesday to repeal the ordinance that established the SID in 1992. That move allows the SID to reorganize as a division of the CRDA.
Statehouse reporter Juliet Fletcher contributed to this report.
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