Mayor Leonard Desiderio drove around Sea Isle City on a chilly fall day, pointing out homes and businesses that were slated for demolition — not because anything was wrong with them, but because there is nowhere else to build on the crowded island.
A 2008 ordinance that allows commercial properties to be rebuilt with retail or commercial space on the first floor and condominiums or apartments above has been the driving force behind recent demolition and construction in Sea Isle, Desiderio said.
“Like most barrier islands, whatever is on the land is not really worth that much,” Desiderio said.
During the driving tour, Desiderio pointed out older homes that did not fit with the new, more modern character of the city.
While Sea Isle has seen an influx in the amount of buildings being torn down, real estate agents said the concept of buying old to build new ones is nothing new.
“There’s been a market for that for a long time,” said Mike Walsh, of Weichert Realtors in Ship Bottom on Long Beach Island. “It slowed in 2005, but we still see it happening.”
The demolition and new construction trend is how Walsh makes a living as a real estate agent in a busy shore community, he said.
“People want to find the spot to build rather than compromise,” he said, adding that he thinks Long Beach Island is a desirable location because there is only one entrance and exit to the island.
Walsh said limited access to the island means people on the island typically stay there and it does not attract too many people who are simply “passing though.”
In 2005, Cape May County led the state in demolitions, fueled by a booming real-estate market that drove home values up by as much as 3 percent per month. Ocean County, home to Long Beach Island, ranked third in demolitions that year, statistics kept by the state Department of Community Affairs show.
Ocean County reclaimed the statewide lead in 2009 with 436 teardowns. Cape May County was fourth that year with 237 demolions, while Atlantic County finished in eighth place with 149 demolitions.
In Cape May County, new construction was such a pervasive part of life in most Ocean City neighborhoods that City Council banned pile-driving in the summer. Contractors formed their own trades association to police its members and maintain harmony in neighborhoods wracked by constant construction noise and heavy equipment congestion.
For more than two years, the city was relatively quiet after the bottom dropped out of the new-construction industry. This year, Cape May County ranks sixth in New Jersey in demolitions, the state Department of Community Affairs says.
But there are some signs the market is improving, said Michael Dattilo, Ocean City’s business administrator.
“We’re certainly not back to approaching the peak years. But for building permits — singles and duplexes — we’re going to be up over last year,” he said. “In previous downturns in the economy, our statistics showed we fared pretty well. We tended to start the upswing a little sooner.”
Mike Zuccato, a Realtor with Stone Harbor’s Atlantic Beach Realty, said he grew up in Stone Harbor and has seen the trend grow and continue for the past 15 years.
“It’s all about location,” said Zuccato, who has been in realty for five years.
Although he understands islands have only so much land to be developed, Zuccato said he was not in favor of revamping entire islands because the demolition of older fishing cottages takes away from the character of any community.
“I think as a kid growing up and seeing all the homes, if I left and came back, I would not recognize some areas of it,” he said of Stone Harbor on Tuesday.
Despite people tearing down older homes, which Zuccato referred to as a sin, he said demolition will not stop until all the older homes have been replaced with larger, mansion-like homes.
Zuccato said the construction trend does not affect everyone but influences people who can afford both the purchase of property and construction fees that come with building a new home. He said people who can afford to buy property for $1 million also are likely to afford building their $3 million dream home in the ideal location of their choosing.
Desiderio said the ongoing change does not affect only the volume of residents who can stay in Sea Isle at the height of summer, but the city’s goal to revitalize the island’s shopping and commercial district and city services.
“People are saying Sea Isle City is not staying put,” he said. “(Sea Isle City) is moving with the times.”
However, with new construction — much of which is duplexes, Desiderio said — there are problems that arise.
Desiderio said parking has continued to be a problem in Sea Isle, but that problem is common for all shore communities that see their population swell during the tourist season.
“Parking is difficult in all shore communities,” he said, adding that if parking were not an issue during the summer, residents would be upset with the lack of business on the island.
Staff Writer Michael Miller contributed to this report.
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