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Blue Heron Pines housing plan dead, may be reborn as grassland habitat

GALLOWAY TOWNSHIP — A long-stalled plan to develop Blue Heron Pines East into a community of almost 1,000 houses is dead, as owner Ole Hansen and Son has told the state Pinelands Commission it is giving up its approvals for the project.

At the same time, the South Jersey Transportation Authority wants to stop maintaining a 290-acre grassland it has managed for 15 years at the airport as habitat for the state-threatened grasslands sparrow and state-endangered upland sandpiper, citing safety concerns.

Blue Heron East not happening map

And it may be looking at Blue Heron Pines, a former golf course, as an alternate site.

“We are actively marketing this property, and we did provide real estate market information about our property to the SJTA at their request, but have not received any purchase offers,” said Ole Hansen President and CEO David Goddard.

Buildings at Blue Heron Pines East have been renovated to accommodate Enlightened Solutions, an addiction treatment center, and “will be there into the foreseeable future,” said Goddard. Enlightened Solutions is run by Jennifer Hansen, who is also the director of real estate development for the family company.

The SJTA has applied to the Pinelands Commission for permission to change a 2004 agreement that allowed it to develop parts of the airport in exchange for creating the grasslands.

The SJTA declined to comment on the application.

“Since this matter is an active negotiation between (the authority and the commission), the SJTA cannot comment on specific details at this time,” spokesman Mark Amorosi said.

The authority may have to purchase about 300 acres of replacement land for an estimated $3 million or more as alternative habitat, according to commission estimates.

The 368-acre Blue Heron Pines East on Tilton Road near Atlantic City International Airport in Egg Harbor Township earned commission approvals for 944 units of housing in 2009, said Goddard.

That was just after the national recession, when the local housing market plummeted. There still isn’t strong enough demand in the region to go forward with the project, said Goddard.

The authority submitted letters and reports to the commission from the Air Force Safety Center, the Department of Agriculture and a consultant called Environmental Resource Solutions supporting the change.

“Airfields are artificially maintained environments designed for the safe launch and recovery of aircraft and must not be used as a wildlife conservation easement,” according to the Air Force letter. “Both the Upland Sandpiper and Grasshopper Sparrow may serve as food attractants for raptor species and the vegetation maintained for these species may well increase the number of insects and small mammals that may attract both avian and terrestrial predators to the airfield.”

The SJTA is asking for a decision before April 15, when the prohibition on mowing comes into effect under its 2004 memorandum of agreement with the commission. The agreement does not allow mowing from April 15 through Aug. 15 of each year.

New Jersey Audubon, which helped establish the grasslands at the airport years ago, said mowing the area does not increase safety, since shorter grass will only attract larger, more problematic birds like geese and gulls.

Under the current draft of the amendment, the SJTA would place $500,000 in escrow with the commission until it can identify other measures to compensate for the loss of the grassland area, said commission Executive Director Nancy Wittenberg.

“SJTA time frames are super tight for our process,” she said at the March 8 commission meeting.

A public hearing will be held 10 a.m. Tuesday at the commission’s offices in Pemberton Township, and written comments must be sent to the Commission no later than that date, said spokesman Paul Leakan.

Wittenberg said the commission is looking at several options.

“It may take us a while to find the right land, find it and take care of all this against safety concerns at the airport,” said Wittenberg. “At the end of the day, we replace habitat one way or another.”

New Jersey Audubon Executive Director Eric Stiles called the SJTA proposal “a step in the wrong direction” and offered to help the airport come up with a new plan.

“This is one of the last places for upland sandpiper,” said Stiles. “It is essential habitat.”

The threatened frosted elfin butterfly is also found there, said Stiles.

The proposed amendment says no commission approvals will be issued for any pending or future Pinelands development applications for the airport until measures are taken to offset the loss of the grasslands protection.

One of Avalon's oldest homes faced demolition, so it moved to Cape May

WEST CAPE MAY — A chaotic day in Cape May unfolded minute-by-minute over a police scanner propped atop a car.

What was once one of the oldest homes in Avalon was being moved from an Egg Harbor Township storage yard to the Victorian shore town, a four-hour-long journey taken on by a South Jersey moving company and seven law-enforcement departments.

“They’re stuck on the power lines near 756 Seashore,” an officer said over static.

A moment later, “There’s a car on Broadway I’m trying to get moved.”

At the foot of the West Cape May bridge, the house’s owner, Adrienne Scharnikow, stood with family members, her Realtor and strangers in anticipation of the home’s arrival.

Scharnikow’s fight to save the 1896 home where she spent summers as a kid began last November after she learned a developer bought the property with plans to raze it and build a bigger home in its place.

She paid the developer $1 for the home and hired moving company S.J. Hauck to disassemble it piece by piece. It sat in storage for more than a year while Scharnikow and her Realtor, Stacey Hutchinson, looked for a place to rebuild it in Cape May.

“It’s been a long project,” said Hutchinson, of deSatnick Real Estate. “The biggest obstacle was finding a lot where the movers could physically move the house to.”

One of Avalon's oldest homes moved to Cape May

Then came a lengthy permitting process followed by figuring out how, logistically, a massive, three-story house would trek down New Jersey’s coastline.

The answer? Very, very slowly.

About 20 to 25 mph, to be exact.

The moving company got a permit from the New Jersey Department of Transportation and alerted police departments in each town the house passed through.

Three escort vehicles donning huge “Oversize Load” signs were positioned in front of and behind the home, navigating it through Routes 559, 617, 40, 50, 49, 47 and 626.

There were a few unplanned pit stops along the way, and more than a few traffic jams.

At one point, the house was ushered off the road into an empty parking lot after hitting a few tree branches on Woodbine Road. The crew secured a back wall that appeared loose.

“Anybody behind that house wants to get around it. ... My main job is to warn the traffic to move over,” said Chester Shingle, who drove one of the escort trucks.

Two days ago, he traveled the route and measured the width of the roads.

The move prompted a mini-celebration in Cape May, a town known for its historic preservation.

In true South Jersey fashion, the local Wawa gave away free coffee and donuts in honor of the home’s long-awaited arrival. A small viewing party of close family and friends stood at the West Cape May bridge for more than an hour waiting for the wrap-around porch to cross the span. Two more floors will be moved at later dates.

Some at the stakeout were near strangers.

Ben Hernandez, an Avalon homeowner, had not met Scharnikow before Thursday. After learning of her efforts to save the historic home last year, Hernandez reached out to Scharnikow and followed the story.

“It got me upset,” he said. “I remember reading it and how I felt. ... That’s why I’m here today. I’m not missing this.”

And finally, it appeared amid cheers.

With a line of cars behind it, the house headed past the Promenade and toward its final resting place: 1306 Texas Ave.

“I’m going to cry,” Scharnikow said as she held up her iPhone camera. “It looked like a sunrise.”

Wildwood officials say South Jersey recovery school not approved for site

MIDDLE TOWNSHIP — South Jersey’s first recovery high school is looking for a new home after being ousted from the Cape Assist building in Wildwood by the city’s zoning official earlier this month.

Coastal Preparatory High School, a school to help recovering addicts in the southern part of the state earn a high school diploma, opened March 1 at the Cape Assist building in the 3800 block of New Jersey Avenue, but days later Wildwood’s zoning officials said it cannot operate because it would be a change in use of the building and that the area was not zoned for a school.

“Our zoning officer said if it’s a school, that’s not zoned for that,” said Mayor Ernie Troiano.

The Middle Township School District, which is facilitating the program, received a $100,000 planning grant in 2017 to develop the high school that helps recovering addicts finish their high school career. This year, the district received an additional $500,000 from the state to implement the program with Cape Assist, an addiction counseling service in Wildwood.

Middle Township Superintendent David Salvo said he is disappointed in Wildwood’s decision, which he called “arbitrary and capricious.” He said Cape Assist has filed an appeal.

“Our mission for developing such a program was to help students in our communities who are struggling with mental health and drug addiction. It is hard to imagine that some people would be opposed to such a program, especially when the data clearly indicates that many of our residents in Cape May County need this type of intervention,” said Salvo.

He said they hope to have a new location in the next few days and were looking at a site in Cape May Court House on Friday.

The recovery high school is the state’s third and serves students from Burlington County to Cape May County and parts of Ocean County. Cape Assist Executive Director Katie Faldetta said four students are currently enrolled, but the program can grow to about 10.

State data show recovery high schools are needed. New Jersey’s drug addiction problem is especially prevalent in the southern counties, with Atlantic, Cape May, Camden, Cumberland, Ocean, Gloucester and Salem counties among the top eight for highest rates of admission for substance-abuse treatment.

According to Troiano, concerns extend beyond the zoning of the block.

“My concern is it’s a Middle Township program. It’s a Middle Township grant. Why is it not in Middle Township? They said they couldn’t find a building in Middle Township, which is amazing. It’s 78 square miles,” Troiano said. “There was concerns that if this was a school for savants for the gifted and talented, would they choose Wildwood? I don’t think so.”

He said neither he nor his secretary could recall receiving calls from Cape Assist about the program, although Faldetta said she had met with city officials last March to discuss it.

Faldetta said that after the March 4 Zoning Board hearing, Cape Assist was still operating the high school out of the Wildwood building, but a fire broke out two days later, damaging the area where the classroom was located and displacing the students. They are currently attending class at a church in Middle Township. The cause of the fire is under investigation, but it reportedly began outside the building.

Faldetta said the move hasn’t phased the students, who she said are doing very well. She said she doesn’t know why people are against the idea of a recovery school.

“I think people confuse recovery with active addiction,” she said.

The students who attend Coastal Prep have to be clean from drugs and are tested weekly. The students attend voluntarily. Faldetta said having the school at the Cape Assist building was convenient because the staff and services were already there to start the program. She said they always intended to have a new location by next September.

“We’re doing this because we’re Cape Assist and this is our mission and Wildwood is our home,” Faldetta said. “We want nothing but the best for Wildwood. We think that taking these kids and supporting them in any way we can betters every community. We’re in the middle of an opioid epidemic, and this is a way to take kids who are statistically more likely to engage in risky behavior and change the way they’re living.”

Troiano said he understands the convenience for Cape Assist to have the school inside their offices, but it is inconvenient and costly for the students and the program to transport students to the island.

“The sad thing of this whole thing is it’s good people trying to do a good job. The neighborhood is just tired of having stuff dumped into Wildwood,” Troiano said.

Dale Gerhard / Staff Photographer/  

Wildwood mayor Ernie Troiano introduces the members of the Harlem Globe Trotters during the dedication of the new courts. The World Famous Harlem Globe Trotters help dedicate five newly reconstructed tennis courts and a new basketball courts at Fox Park in Wildwood, Tuesday Aug. 14, 2018. “These courts have been completely redone,” said Director of Recreation Rich Hans. “And during the planning phase, we opted to convert one of the six tennis courts that was on site into a basketball court.” “The tennis courts were badly in need of reconstruction,” said the mayor. “ By redoing them and adding the basketball court we are giving more people, including kids, a safe place to play and enjoy their Wildwood days.” (Dale Gerhard/Press of Atlantic City)

Hamilton Township has offered to help Hamilton Mall

HAMILTON TOWNSHIP — Phil Sartorio, the township’s director of community planning and economic development, swears he cannot see into the future.

But Sartorio did let Hamilton Mall management know last summer the township was willing to work with them to designate the mall as an area in need of redevelopment.

This was before the announcement that two of the mall’s three anchor stores would be closing. Sears closed in late October. JCPenney will close July 5.

Mall management did not respond to a request for comment.

Amid the closing of retail giants and smaller stores — Charlotte Russe and Payless ShoeSource also are closing — the mall has won several appeals of its tax assessment, reducing its value and consequently its contribution to the township’s ratable base.

The mall had a value of $90,787,000 in 2017, but it was reduced to $75 million last year, said William M. Johnson, the township tax assessor. The mall’s value was reduced again from $75 million to $50 million from last year to this year, Johnson said. That assessment does not include the anchor stores or the pads for Buffalo Wild Wings or LongHorn Steakhouse.

There is another active tax appeal for this year for the mall, Johnson said.

The impact of the mall’s tax appeals may become apparent this year when the 2019 budget is introduced during a Township Committee meeting at 6:30 p.m. Monday at the Municipal Building, Committeeman John Kurtz said Thursday.

A redevelopment area designation would give the Township Committee the power to offer tax-abatement incentives for projects done on the mall’s property that could increase its value.

“We can work with them as a redevelopment area, similar to what we have done with the racetrack,” Sartorio said, referring to the neighboring Atlantic City Race Course, which closed in 2015. The Township Committee voted last year to authorize the Planning Board to investigate whether the race course property qualified as an area in need of redevelopment.

The township has worked with mall management previously.

Contractors remove Sears signs from Hamilton Mall

In 2012, the township’s planning, zoning and construction departments did what they could to get the mall through the process as quickly as possible for an expansion that made room for Buffalo Wild Wings, LongHorn Steakhouse and 63,000 square feet of retail, including Forever 21 and H&M.

But while the mall is losing stores, at least one new business is relocating to the mall, and an existing business is expanding.

Starcade is currently located on the ground floor of the Showboat Atlantic City, but the retro arcade will move in mid to late April to a 7,200-square-foot location next to Forever 21, said Bridget Den Boer, the Starcade manager.

And Ideal Institute of Technology, which has one small location inside the mall with a recording studio, will open a virtual reality lab next month, and a third larger location that will be an accredited classroom with financial aid should open in early to mid summer, Crystal Rodriguez, the mall’s marketing manager, has said.