This story has been updated to correct whom the Margate Homeowners Association represents.
MARGATE — There are two Margates.
One as it’s known today, with its small-town charms and easily accessible beach, a coastal bastion against the swollen crowds and developments that have turned other South Jersey beach towns from places once called home to weekend tourist destinations.
Then there’s the Margate of the future. The one portended by the city’s 2017 master plan, with its high-rise hotels, oceanside bars and restaurants, restricted beach access and an altered skyline that may no longer feature that which is most quintessentially Margate — Lucy the Elephant.
At a recent City Commission meeting, Margate introduced an ordinance that would establish a resort hotel overlay zone along Atlantic Avenue between Cedar Grove and Coolidge avenues. The ordinance was introduced in accordance with the vision of the master plan and following years of planning and “extensive public comment,” according to city officials.
The public comment part may have come as a surprise to those in attendance at the recent commission meeting. Overwhelming public backlash, which Mayor Michael Becker chalked up to the proliferation of misinformation and confusion, saw the commission table the ordinance for the time being, opting instead to send it back to the Planning Board for re-examination.
The tabling of the ordinance is indefinite, but the public is still expected to come out in droves at the next commission meeting at 4 p.m. Thursday.
The overlay zone would not change the types of zoning already in effect in that area, which include central business district, multifamily and general office, said city Zoning Officer Roger McLarnon. City officials say no plans have been submitted for hotel projects.
Jay Weintraub, longtime Margate property owner and head of the Margate Homeowners Association of New Jersey, a group that seeks representation for homeowners and renters in the city, said he believes the master plan looks to fundamentally change the city. Its intentions seem better suited to Ocean City or Wildwood than Margate, he said.
“If you look at the ordinance as they quietly presented it to the citizenry of Margate, what they’re doing is opening the door to privatization of the beaches,” he said. “The new master plan says they want to change (Margate) to more of a transient town. It appears as though this commission is moving in that direction.”
For the city’s part, it claims there have been plenty of reports, meetings and opportunities for the public’s input prior to the introduction of the overlay zone earlier this month.
Meetings were held with professionals and local business owners, and public presentations were conducted. The results of those efforts were the development of several ordinances, including the hotel overlay, which was reviewed by the Planning Board and sent to the commission for adoption.
Public outcry, however, suggested that locals would like more of a say.
“We want the public to have a better understanding of the master plan process and ample opportunities for additional public comment before anything further is considered by the commissioners,” Becker said in a release issued by the city.
One of the main points of contention involving the overlay proposal is the inclusion of Lucy the Elephant. Lucy, named a National Historic Landmark in 1976 and considered one of the oldest roadside attractions in the country, is owned and sits on land owned by the city.
While there have been no discussions about removing Lucy, its inclusion in the zone has some worried.
The New Jersey Sierra Club came out against the overlay plan, saying potential development, even around Lucy, would be harmful to the iconic attraction, the group said.
“Lucy the Elephant, a loved National Landmark, is threatened by a high-rise development. Big hotels will block the view of the beach and waterfront and cast a shadow on Lucy,” Jeff Tittel, director of the state’s Sierra Club, said in a statement. “The proposal would stop people from being able to enjoy a national treasure that we have loved for over 100 years.”
As with Lucy, there’s concern over Margate changing into something else.
Weintraub said Margate has never been a resort town like some other shore towns. There need to be countless studies to determine whether the city can even support something like a 19-story hotel, which he said could negatively impact traffic and burden public utilities. The cost to homeowners needs to be considered before an ordinance should be approved, he said.
“We pride ourselves on being a nice residential community,” Weintraub said. “Suddenly that’s changed.”