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Craig Matthews / Staff Photographer  

The 1st round of the ShopRite LPGA Classic in Galloway on Friday. June 7, 2019 (Craig Matthews / Staff Photographer)

Has Atlantic City finally figured out what to do with all its rooming houses?

ATLANTIC CITY — A coordinated effort between the city and the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority will result in a reduction in the number of rooming houses in the Tourism District.

Fourteen rooming houses — multi-tenant dwellings with shared bathroom and kitchen facilities — are either pending conversion or have already transitioned into duplexes, apartments or hotels. The use variances for these properties will reduce the number of licensed rooming houses in Atlantic City to 28, city records show.

CRDA and city officials said the changes are the result of increased code enforcement for rooming houses combined with stricter adherence to permitted land uses in the Tourism District, which includes the Boardwalk, casinos and much of the downtown commercial area.

The rooming house operators who are converting their properties into other commercial uses are doing so voluntarily, officials said.

“This is a step in the right direction to improve the living conditions and quality of life of those neighborhoods,” said Council President Marty Small Sr. “We look forward to — property by property — bringing everyone in line and providing a better housing stock for residents in Atlantic City.”

The CRDA has zoning and land use authority over the Tourism District.

“We are pleased to see that the work with Atlantic City Code Enforcement is beginning to pay off in reducing the number of rooming houses in Atlantic City,” said Matt Doherty, executive director of the CRDA.

Even with the reduction in numbers, Atlantic City’s rooming house situation is not in compliance with state or local regulations. The state Rooming and Boarding House Act — which the city’s regulations mirror — prohibits the number of people living in rooming homes to exceed 1% of a municipality’s total population and bans operators from being within 1,000 feet of each other.

City officials estimate 600 to 700 people live in a rooming house. Based on 2018 population estimates, there should only be about 385 people living in rooming homes.

Clusters of rooming houses are scattered throughout the Tourism District, in clear violation of the 1,000-foot rule.

Proposed or completed conversions of rooming houses on Florida, Ocean and Tennessee avenues will alleviate some of those violations.

Sixth Ward Councilman Jesse Kurtz, who chairs City Council’s licensing and inspection committee, said efforts to address these issues began several years ago but have only now produced results.

“This is really the fruit of what has been a focused effort for, now spanning, a couple of years to try and do something, which most people said was impossible,” Kurtz said.

Both Small and Kurtz said rooming houses are a necessary element of affordable housing in an urban environment. But both officials said Atlantic City’s rooming houses are a drain on resources, particularly when it comes to public safety and emergency responses.

In 2018, the Atlantic City Police Department responded to more than 800 calls for service to rooming houses, for issues ranging from excessive noise and loitering to violence and drug activity.

But even more than getting a nuisance issue to a more manageable level, city officials said the conversion of rooming houses to duplexes, hotels or apartments will enhance the aesthetics, perception and desirability of several neighborhoods. With rooming house operators transforming their properties into more commercially viable enterprises, officials believe it can benefit both the property owners and the city.

Small, who chairs council’s revenue and finance committee, said following the citywide tax reassessment (scheduled to begin this year and be completed by 2020), several of the converted rooming houses could help increase the ratable base and offset several years of declining revenue.

“I think by taking a more balanced and forceful approach to enforcement, where operators and owners know that laws are going to be enforced, the owners are either going to improve the quality of the home and how people are bedded as tenants, or they’re going to (pursue other business opportunities),” Kurtz said.

The joint effort between city code enforcement, led by Dale Finch, director of the city’s licensing and inspection department, and CRDA should serve as a model of how Atlantic City can tackle other quality-of-life issues, Kurtz said.

The Mayor’s Office declined to make Finch available for comment.

“This is a perfect example of leadership being shown at the local level to point a very clear direction toward a problem, namely the over-concentration of rooming houses, and the state coming in with the local leadership and making things possible that we couldn’t do on our own,” Kurtz said. “This should be a new way of doing government business, where it’s year-round, it’s focused, it’s fair, it’s clear, it’s evenly handled and it’s not done in bits and spurts.”

Small said this type of joint effort cannot be a one-time thing if Atlantic City is to continue on a path toward revitalization.

“This is a great accomplishment,” Small said. “(But) we can’t be one-and-done. We can’t let our guard down.”

After decade of remission, Randazzo to paddle around Absecon Island

The race is officially called Paddle for a Cause, a 22.5-mile trek around Absecon Island that helps raise money for cancer victims.

Among the paddlers, it’s simply called “The Dean.”

The event was created in 2008 by former Ventnor resident Mike May. May convinced six friends to join him in paddling from and back to a Margate beach in honor of surfing legend Dean Randazzo, who was undergoing treatment at the time for his fourth bout with Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

The event will be held for the 12th time Saturday, with one major difference.

Randazzo will be in the race.

“It’s time,” Randazzo said. “I’ve been cancer-free for 11 years, so there’s no excuse for me not to do it. I’m really looking forward to it.”

GALLERY: 11th annual Paddle for A Cause

Randazzo, 49, is widely considered the best male surfer in local history. In 1996, he became the first competitor from New Jersey to qualify for the Association of Surfing Professionals World Championship Tour.

Five years later, he was diagnosed with cancer for the first time.

In July 2008, seven paddlers — Cape May’s Todd DeSatnick, Atlantic City’s Tom Forkin, Linwood’s Chris Maher, May, New York’s Gavin O’Donnell, Ventnor’s Mike Tkacz and Atlantic City’s Frankie Walsh — made their way into the surf from a beach at the Margate Pier.

Because stand-up paddleboarding had yet to be introduced on the East Coast, they used prone boards that required paddling on their knees and stomachs.

The group was forced to overcome several obstacles. A tropical storm was brewing, creating 10-foot waves that formed walls of water they had to climb just to get past the break. Once they reached Brigantine, swarms of greenhead flies arrived.

Friends binge, delight in Feast of St. Pizza in Ocean City

OCEAN CITY — Three people sat on their heels on the Boardwalk on Saturday morning outside Three Brothers Pizza, clutching a silver platter that held an oven-fresh pizza while Sara Cornelius stood above them on a chair to snap the perfect picture.

“It was really tough,” Forkin said. “I had so many bug bites, it looked like someone had hit me with a bullwhip. And the waves at the start didn’t help. We learned our lesson after that one. That was the last time we started from the beach.”

Over the years, as his health improved, Randazzo, who now lives in Ventnor Heights, participated in the four- and eight-mile social paddles through back bays that accompany the 22.5-mile race.

A few months ago, he began training for the main event.

“The funny part of it is that people thought I had to do a lot of paddling to get ready for this,” Randazzo said. “But I needed to get myself in shape on land first. I really worked on my endurance and stamina. I did a lot of cardio and high-intensity interval training.”

He also felt the need to build up his emotional health.

Randazzo Paddle for a Cause

Workouts have been supplemented with weekly yoga classes in Margate to help with relaxation and focus. In the evenings, he grabs a board from the SUP rental store he runs at Golden Nugget Atlantic City and heads out for a sunset paddle.

“I was in a pretty rough place for a while,” Randazzo said. “Going through a separation and divorce was tough.”

Nearly 50 people have signed up for Saturday’s 22.5-mile race, which begins and ends at Frank S. Farley Marina next to Golden Nugget, with over 50 more entered in the other distances. Proceeds go to the Dean Randazzo Cancer Fund, which provides support to local cancer centers and related nonprofits. The organization has raised more than $1 million through its efforts.

Two of the original paddlers, DeSatnick and Forkin, will be there with Randazzo.

Paddleboarding fundraiser to help cancer patients

ATLANTIC CITY — Fundraising efforts have already garnered more than $20,000 in donations ahead of the 11th annual Paddle for a Cause, an event that raises money for people with cancer, according to a news release.

“It’s going to be great to have Dean out there with us,” DeSatnick said. “It’s a great example of how the surf and SUP community comes together to help each other.”

Randazzo, who earned the nickname “Jersey Devil” for his aggressive surfing style, has modest expectations for Saturday.

His main goal is to complete the race, 22.5 miles of what has been an amazing, inspirational journey.

“I’m really looking forward to it,” he said. “I’m feeling a fire that I haven’t felt in a while.”

Twenty One Pilots fans brave the elements for front seat at AC concert

ATLANTIC CITY — A group of teen girls with brightly colored hair stood next to their makeshift campground Friday outside Jim Whelan Boardwalk Hall and rattled off their hometowns and the number of Twenty One Pilots concerts they’d attended: 10, nine, eight, seven, two.

They’d been hanging out since Wednesday afternoon, when they took their spot at the front of the queue.

“You kind of form friendships while you’re here,” said one of the girls’ mothers, Jennifer Demarinis, 50, of Blue Bell, Pennsylvania.

Spots on the floor for those with general admission tickets for Saturday’s Twenty One Pilots concert are first come, first served. Those in line want the prime real estate near the stage to see the alternative rock/rap duo — formed in 2009 and best known for their hit “Stressed Out” — and want to beat out the inevitable crowds that will pour in Saturday. The girls took charge of keeping the line organized, handing out red wristbands with numbers signifying their place in line. Venue employees were receptive to the idea, they said.

They haven’t had any issues since their arrival.

“The police have been great,” Demarinis said. “I don’t think the neighbors like us too much.”

They haven’t been bored either, they said. The camaraderie and anticipation of seeing their favorite band has made it a mini vacation.

Dylan and Holly Pierce, both 26, of Lower Alloways Creek Township, Salem County, sat with Holly’s sister, Ronnie Foster, 19, eating Wawa sandwiches on the curb. They were trying to avoid using their phones, even though they had portable chargers. Saturday at 6 p.m. — when doors open — was still far off.

The excitement was keeping them going since they arrived earlier Friday morning.

“We think we’re gonna be pretty close,” Dylan Pierce said.

They’ve had their tickets since the fall.

The Pierces saw Twenty One Pilots for the first time for Foster’s birthday in Allentown, Pennsylvania. They didn’t want to listen to their music on the way there. They weren’t sold on the band yet.

Their performance that night sealed the deal.

“They’re very interactive,” Holly Pierce said. “I didn’t believe (Ronnie), because I’ve been to shows, concerts my whole life and I’m like, ‘nah, nah, nah.’”

But the frontman, Tyler Joseph, put on an electric performance, even making his way up into the “nosebleeds” a few feet from them.

“I was like, ‘Wow, you proved me wrong,’” Holly Pierce said.

Sleeping on the sidewalk, of course, is illegal, and not without its hazards.

Set up on the sidewalk since Thursday morning, Madison Tice, 19, from the West Chester, Pennsylvania, area, sat with friends in a circle of camping chairs taking in the sights.

A man chugged a full bottle of Bacardi rum and passed out right next to them, they said, prompting a visit from police.

“He did play his guitar,” Tice said of the man. “So it was a preshow.”

New monitor invites fears of state takeover in Pleasantville schools

PLEASANTVILLE — Saying he was “embarrassed” and “enraged” to learn the school district was getting a second state monitor after 12 years of state oversight, Mayor Jesse Tweedle gathered city and school officials Thursday to discuss how they can work together against what they believe is a state takeover.

“If we don’t step up and straighten ourselves out, it’s going to be a takeover,” said Councilman Lawrence “Tony” Davenport, who served on the school board for the past three years before winning a seat on City Council in November.

While the assistant state monitor, J. Michael Rush, started here Tuesday, state Education Commissioner Lamont Repollet had notified the school district May 15 of the added monitor.

In the letter to Superintendent Clarence Alston, Repollet gives little explanation except that he has “deemed it necessary.” The contract term is for one year, starting June 3.

In the contract, Rush’s role is defined as directing business office activities, overseeing budget development, overseeing staffing and developing a plan to address the fiscal deficiencies in the district that necessitated the state monitor.

“Due to well-documented struggles the board has recently experienced with governance and financial issues, the DOE has assigned a second monitor to assist the board, primarily in governance matters,” Department of Education spokesman Michael Yaple said in an email Friday.

Yaple said that for the second year in a row, the board has adopted a budget that required a reduction in staffing but failed to take the steps necessary to implement the reduction. Last month, the district approved a budget, down $500,000 from the prior year, but could not come to an agreement on a significant reduction in force that would have balanced the budget. The year prior, the school board was in a similar situation.

“All school boards are required by law to have a balanced budget. It is the Department’s expectation that the Board of Education will make the decisions necessary to fulfill its responsibilities,” he said. “The department’s monitor has developed an exit plan for removal of the district from state-monitor status. However, recurring issues involving unbalanced budgets negatively impact the ability to move forward with that plan.”

In a phone call Thursday, Atlantic County Executive Dennis Levinson placed blame on the district’s state monitors for failing to be effective over the past decade. Fiscal monitor Constance Bauer has the ability to overrule the decisions of the school board but has not taken action on the most recent failure to approve the reduction in force. Last year, in a series of emails, Bauer warned the school board that its failure to make a reduction in force would create a deficit but did not overturn the board’s decision.

“If it weren’t so tragic that the children are caught in the middle, it would be comical,” Levinson said. “Obviously, the better solution to the problem is not having monitors monitoring monitors and taking money away that should be being put into the children’s education.”

Levinson said he has spoken with the state, the mayor and the county superintendent of schools regarding the situation.

“They’ve got to get this straightened out,” Levinson said. “The people of Pleasantville are paying for it, that’s what they don’t get.”

Davenport said the issues in Pleasantville run deep.

“The board’s playing political and personal games, and I think outside they’re looking in and seeing this,” Davenport said. “The state has to see it. I think we’ve been dragging our feet as a community letting it happen.”

In the exit plan submitted by Bauer in August 2017, she noted the excessive legal costs incurred by the district as one of the reasons the state monitoring had to continue, among other issues, including lack of planning and oversight.

Last year, the district paid $1.3 million in legal costs, including more than $400,000 in payouts from lawsuits against the district. One of those was a $215,000 settlement paid to Alston. Last month, the district paid $200,000 to former maintenance director William “Speedy” Marsh after he sued over the handling of his employment.

Missing from the meeting Thursday was Alston, who school officials confirmed was on leave from the district. How long Alston will be out has not been revealed, but the situation leaves the district without any school chief as Assistant Superintendent Garnell Bailey also is on leave. Also absent were Bauer and Rush, who Tweedle said were not invited.

District Administrator Elisha Thompkins said the next step is to see what happens at Tuesday’s school board meeting.