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Matthew Strabuk / For The Press  

On June 22nd 2019, Brandon Lashley, 18, of Upper Township, The Press Baseball Player of the Year, is photographed at his home field at 5th and Bay ave in Ocean City.

Redevelopment plan ready for Atlantic City's MGM marina district deal

ATLANTIC CITY — A new redevelopment zone in the Marina District allows multi-family housing there, paving the way for luxury housing and other projects sought by MGM Resorts International and Boraie Development.

The city’s Marina District Redevelopment Plan, approved by the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority last week, also lets the city enter into redevelopment agreements and offer tax breaks and other incentives on the 82-acre property, said Lance Landgraf, the CRDA’s director of planning.

MGM and Boraie recently announced plans to build 200 luxury condo units on about 14 acres of waterfront next to Golden Nugget Casino Hotel.

The land had been zoned in the CRDA’s Tourism District Master Plan for casinos and other entertainment and commercial development but not housing, said MGM attorney Jack Plackter.

The new plan permits multi-family housing, but not single-family, he said.

MGM owns the land, as well as another 69 acres of vacant land between Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa and Harrah’s Resort, Plackter said.

The CRDA has authority over planning for the city’s Tourism District, which encompasses the marina district as well as the ocean blocks along the Boardwalk.

CRDA Board Chairman Robert Mulcahy said the plan has the potential to be extremely important to the city.

“It will create the marina district as almost another self-contained unit within the city,” Mulcahy said.

Plackter said it will enable the city to capture the second home market in a big way.

“The second home market is an opportunity the city has never been able to take advantage of,” Plackter said. “Why wouldn’t people who live in New York and Philadelphia want a place to walk to world-class restaurants, and to see great entertainment?”

He said MGM may seek some kind of tax relief, but “there is no current ask.”

“The taxes on a $500,000 unit in Atlantic City would be a lot of money. It might discourage second-home buyers,” Plackter said. “In order to be competitive, they may consider those kind of incentives.”

Likely buyers will not be sending kids to Atlantic City schools or utilizing municipal services like full-time residents, he said. The company has not yet narrowed down the design style, size or price range for the units, Plackter said.

The plan replaces the lapsed Huron North Redevelopment Plan, which stood for 20 years and ended in 2015.

Some of the land between Harrah’s and Borgata was once a city dump that required remediation, capping and still requires ongoing monitoring of methane vents, Plackter said.

He said he is not aware of any plans by MGM to develop that section yet, but that development of either housing or casino/entertainment facilities is possible there.

City council proposed the redevelopment plan April 10, and adopted it May 15.

“This is the CRDA consenting to what the city wants to do,” said Executive Director Matt Doherty.

Plackter said there are still some wetlands issues to be settled.

“It’s not a high-value wetland,” Plackter said, adding there are no endangered species there. “MGM, as the applicant, has to work through with the (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers) to see if it is willing to issue permits.”

Sonar gives Hamilton Township Dive Team eyes under water

Clem Thomas, a lieutenant with the Hamilton Township Dive team, demonstrates how they use sonar to locate objects under water, at Lake Lenape, in Mays Landing, Sunday June 16, 2019. (VERNON OGRODNEK / For The Press)

HAMILTON TOWNSHIP — With his eyes closed and his left hand clutching an invisible rope at his side, Glenn Hausmann waved his right arm through the air back and forth in front of him Wednesday morning, blindly feeling through the air with his fingertips.

“This is how we search for a drowning victim,” said Hausmann, chief of the township’s Search and Recovery Dive Team. “What the sonar does, it gives us eyes.”

For the first time in the more than two decades that Hausmann has been diving, searching the dark waters of local rivers, lakes and sand pits for drowning victims by touch, he’s now able to see under the water.

Late last fall, the township authorized the purchase of a $3,600 sonar system that officials say will be helpful during search and recovery operations, as well as before a drowning happens to map out the depths and debris that might be lurking underneath the water’s surface, creating hazards for divers.

Between 2006 and 2017, 351 New Jersey residents died from drowning in natural water, according to data from the state Department of Health. Natural water accounted for more than 50% of all drowning deaths, including those in swimming pools, bath tubs and other specified drowning and submersion and unspecified drowning and submersion.

The table shows the drowning deaths in New Jersey from 2006 to 2017, according to data from the state Department of Health.

Natural water232432372724333720302341351
Swimming pool1114814141289181014136
Bath tub810889578
Other specified drowning and submersion0023
Unspecified drowning and submersion141519101395106
Total deaths due to drowning and submersion476073635657555448645365694

In the eight years that Dawn Suhr has been living at the end of Thelma Avenue in Mays Landing, a handful of teenagers have come knocking on her door, asking her to call an ambulance.

“A lot of kids don’t realize the danger,” Suhr, 58, said, shaking her head in her doorway. “It’s so sad.”

Teens park at the end of the street or continue down the dirt road onto private property to swim in the small quarry filled with rain and cold groundwater or to ride ATVs through the woods “constantly,” she said.

Two years ago, Lenyn Mercedes-Payamps, 23, of Pleasantville, went missing while swimming in the pit; his body was pulled from the water three hours later. He was presumed drowned.

Body pulled from quarry in Mays Landing

A man in his early 20s was found dead Monday night and presumed drowned in a small quarry at the end of Thelma Avenue in Mays  Landing, said Tiger Platt, the chief of the Brigantine Fire Department.

While bathers are generally just looking for a free place to swim, they don’t realize the dangers, Hausmann said, of being in an undesignated swimming area without a lifeguard watching over them.

“The odds are, you’re going to swim in these places, you’ll be fine,” he said. “But the odds you’re playing with are your life.”

Township Mayor Art Schenker approved the sonar purchase when he learned that the team could use the sonar to see under the water.

“This would not only help in rescue efforts, but it also aids in the safety of our divers,” Schenker said. “So it was clear to us that this equipment would have a big impact with very little cost.”

The dive team is now working to map and file the more than two-dozen sand pits, lakes and other bodies of water in South Jersey — as they are one of the only dive teams in the area — to give them a better idea of what they’re diving into. Last weekend, they took the sonar out to the Thelma Avenue pit and Lake Lenape to map out the underwater terrain.

“We look for anomalies,” Hausmann explained. “It might not see someone’s hand, but it can pick up an object. Right now, we’re trying to train our eyes.”

During the mapping at Lake Lenape, Hausmann sunk himself to the bottom, acting as a drowning victim, he said. Members of the dive team on the boat above the surface were able to see his body on the sonar, as well as a dark drag mark where his body scraped against the lake bed before settling in one spot.

The sonar screen shows green vegetation, but also tree stumps and other debris on the lake bottom. So far, they’ve learned that the Thelma Avenue pit is 27 feet deep and relatively trash-free with no mining equipment left behind, he said.

The old sand quarry off Leipzig Avenue, another popular swimming spot, is 44 feet at its deepest.

Blue holes attract, but hidden hazards can kill

MAYS LANDING — A hot summer day in South Jersey means finding the closest body of water to cool off in. From the Pinelands to the shoreline, there are plenty of guarded beaches and lakefronts.

“It’s not an answer for everything, but it’s definitely helpful,” he said. “Now we can see what we’re going into.”

Chuck Faisst, Suhr’s neighbor, said that each year, the owner of the property that holds the Thelma Avenue Pit puts up a gate to block the people from getting in, but it gets knocked down regularly.

“During the summer, it’s not uncommon for people to have beach chairs and be hanging out,” Faisst, 39, said. “People should not be swimming there. It’s absolutely, 100% dangerous.”

Although the water is a beautiful blue color, crystal clear and the water at the surface might be warm, he said that there’s a drop off “like a cliff” and the water become a lot colder.

He’s warned his children, who range in age from 2 to 9, not to venture near the water, Faisst said.

Hausmann explained that unlike other bodies of water, sand pits can collapse, and “gets deep in one step,” becoming a hazardous place to swim.

Danger blue hole quarries drowing graphic

With the sonar, as a diver is getting dressed at the scene of a recovery, a boat will drive over the surface, mapping out the area and searching for the victim, he said.

“Our mission is to find them safely, but to find them quickly,” Hausmann said. “Now, we have an idea. We’re no longer blind.”

Who will hear West Wildwood mayor's appeal of $24,900 in ethics fines?

WEST WILDWOOD — Mayor Christopher Fox’s appeal of $24,900 in fines for alleged violations of state ethics laws will either be heard by the Department of Community Affairs’ Local Finance Board or by the state Office of Administrative Law, according to a DCA spokeswoman.

“The state’s Local Finance Board will vote — likely at its meeting July 10 — on whether it will hear the appeal itself or transfer the matter to the state Office of Administrative Law,” Lisa Ryan wrote in response to an email request for information.

Ryan said the board usually sends such cases to the Office of Administrative Law.

Fox has refused to talk to The Press of Atlantic City.

He was notified of the ethics fines in an April 11 letter from Melanie R. Walter, chairwoman of the Local Finance Board, according to a copy of the letter provided by the DCA.

It included 21 pages of descriptions of his actions the board said violated state ethics laws.

Some were related to actions he took as mayor that benefited police Chief Jacqueline Ferentz, with whom he lives. Others were related to his failure to disclose all income he receives on state-required financial disclosure statements, and to his entering into shared-services agreements with neighboring Wildwood while he was also business administrator there.

Too much power? Commission form gives local leaders most clout

WEST WILDWOOD — The nonpartisan commission form of government used here, where the mayor is under a cloud of state ethics charges, gives more power to elected officials than other types of municipal organization, according to local government experts.

The board said Fox violated state ethics laws when he voted in favor of designating himself director of public safety, with oversight of the Police Department, 10 days before the borough reinstated Ferentz as a police officer and about a month before she was named chief.

Fox also allegedly violated the law when he gave Ferentz back pay and pension credit for a time in which she did not serve in the Police Department; and voted in favor of a 50% increase in Ferentz’s salary from $67,000 to $101,000, from 2015 to 2017.

Fox, a retired Wildwood police officer, receives a police pension.

His daughter Nicole Fox has since been hired as a police officer in West Wildwood, to the dismay of many residents.

Christopher Fox had a month from the time he received the letter to file an appeal.

He called the board May 13 to say he had just received the letter, Ryan said. So he had until June 13 to appeal.

Christopher Fox’s lawyer, Michelle J. Douglass, sent a letter to the board June 4 officially appealing the violations.

Douglass is the same lawyer who represented Ferentz when she sued the borough over her treatment by a previous mayor.

Ferentz won a $1.7 million judgment that taxpayers are struggling to pay, forcing cutbacks in city workers’ hours and other cost-saving measures. The borough’s insurance company refused to pay the award, saying the municipality — by then under Fox’s leadership — failed to adequately defend itself in the suit.

In late May, Wildwood City Commission voted 2-1 to terminate Fox from his position as business administrator, saying negative publicity about his ethics violations was harming Wildwood’s reputation.

West Wildwood Commissioner Cornelius Maxwell resigned earlier this month, saying it was for personal reasons; and West Wildwood Administrator Chris Ridings, who has been with the borough since 2011, resigned last week, citing personal reasons, according to the Cape May County Herald. Ridings retired as deputy chief of police in Mount Laurel, Burlington County.

Summer learning loss a myth? Local educators weigh in

For years, educators have talked about ways to avoid learning loss over the long summer break. But new research suggests the so-called “summer slide” may not actually be a thing.

In a recent article for Education Next, Associate Professor Paul von Hippel of the University of Texas, Austin finds the study most widely used to support claims of summer learning loss is based on outdated test-scoring methods.

For local educators, even if learning loss doesn’t exist, there is still good reason to promote learning through July and August.

The Brookings Institution based in Washington, D.C., says the previous research on the summer slide shows a student’s achievement scores decline over summer vacation by one month’s worth of school-year learning and that income-based reading gaps grow over the summer.

In his research, von Hippel found it impossible to replicate the results of the 30-year-old study, and found varying results using new scoring methods.

“So what do we know about summer learning loss? Less than we think,” von Hippel wrote. “There is one result that replicates consistently across every test that I’ve ever looked at. It’s so obvious that it’s easy to overlook, but it’s still important: Nearly all children, no matter how advantaged, learn much more slowly during summer vacations than they do during the school year.”

He said that means summer learning programs offer every child who is behind a chance to catch up.

Josepha Penrose, supervisor of curriculum and instruction at Wildwood Public Schools, agrees. The district, like many others, hosts summer programs for students.

“I guess we really haven’t thought over the years about summer learning loss, but rather that it’s not going to help any student if they don’t do any work in the summer, so we focus on accelerating them forward while we have them here for the four or five weeks of summer school,” Penrose said.

Lower Cape May Regional Superintendent Chris Kobik said many studies like von Hippel’s suggest the importance of closing achievement gaps early in a child’s academic career, and said summer programs are not about closing gaps, but about growth.

“We know we have students that benefit from summer programs as evidenced by their ability to take more challenging coursework and succeed in the following school year,” Kobik said.

In Margate, interim Superintendent Tom Baruffi said they operate under the assumption that summer assignments help students stay sharp. He said they offer basic skills instruction programs and extended school-year programs for special education students, especially those who are just beginning to read.

The Little Egg Harbor School District partners with the Ocean County College Library to make books available to students over the summer and offers a reading club and a basic skills summer program.

Ocean City also makes education programs and resources available throughout the summer.

“Regardless of specific studies, you would be hard-pressed to find any educators that do not believe that summer loss occurs at some level even though it doesn’t affect every grade level or subject equitably,” said Curt A. Nath, Ocean City’s director of academic service.

For more information, read “Is Summer Learning Loss Real? How I lost faith in one of education research’s classic results.”