ORTLEY BEACH, NJ – Toms River Mayor Maurice “Mo” Hill and Councilwoman Maria Maruca want to spend $7,000,000 to purchase a parcel of land, owned by their friend Joey Barcelona in Ortley Beach. During Hurricane Sandy, Joey Harrison’s Surf Club was destroyed by the pounding surf and subsequent storm surge that ravaged Ortley Beach. Now, unable to sell the property on the open market, Barcelona wants the local government to purchase his land at a premium. According to township documents, Barcelona’s beachfront property has been assessed by the township at $1.8 million. It was higher, until recently, when Barcelona and his team of lawyers filed a tax appeal, claiming the land isn’t worth as much as the town said it was.
Now, he wants the town to pay his $7,000,000 asking price. This week, Toms River Township agreed to pay the $7 million, paid mostly in part with a $6.6 million state grant. The township does not have the balance, $400,000 to seal the deal. Now, they are asking the Ocean County Board of Chosen Freeholders to cover the spread.
Ocean County Freeholder Virginia Haines was hoping to push the item through the county agenda under the cover of darkness this summer, but after procedural and legal issues arose about the purchase, Haines was forced to table her resolution to buy already preserved land owned by Toms River Township using county-funded open-space funds.
Few in Ocean County disagree about the fate of the Surf Club, but some are disagreeing on who should be paying, especially when the purchase price is $5,000,000 over the land’s assessed value.
Ocean County Freeholder Joe Vicari said the purchase if it happens could still be quite some time away as the Ocean County Natural Lands Trust Committee still has to hold a formal hearing on the purchase. This year, Ginny Haines stocked the committee with her own political appointee, Marty Flemming, an appointed first-year councilman in Jackson Township.
The county seeks to purchase two parcels from Toms River, one is marshland adjacent to Cattus Island Park and the other a wooded lot near Ocean County College, both owned by the township.
Vicari said today that he would support the purchase of the Surf Club by Toms River, but was unsure if the county board of freeholders would agree to overpay on Oceanfront property. Vicari said the Ocean County Natural Land Trust is typically used to by low-cost, environmentally sensitive land, usually at low negotiated rates. Vicari said he was concerned about the precedent that could be set if the county started buying oceanfront land at a premium. The county currently has a $60,000,000 account to purchase open space. In this case, the county would not be buying ocean front property, instead, buying two township-owned lots that are already protected from development. Vicari said he’s unsure if the county can use open space funding to purchase land that is already protected.
“We have a long way to go,” Vicari said.
Haines, Hill and Maruca see the $7,000,000 purchase as a political victory to win over voters in Ortley Beach.
Toms River Councilman Dan Rodrick today issued a statement. Rodrick noted that in 2015 the Barcelona family fought the township of Toms River to lower the assessed value of their property and won a tax appeal, claiming their land was worth just $1.9 million. Rodrick also voice concerns about who would foot the bill to tear down a remaining structure on the property and suggested Toms River should not pay a penny more for the project than the $6.6 million in Blue Acres funding allocated by the state.
“If the Surf Club property was worth what they are asking, it would have been sold already on the public market,” Rodrick said. “We’re at a peak in the real estate market and this is prime oceanfront property. No one in the private sector has made a better offer.”
Rodrick said the township should instead, force Barcelona to tear down the vacant structure before any deal is made and should consider taking a strip of land by eminent domain in order to construct a boardwalk connected the northern and southern sections of the existing boardwalk along the ocean. So, it seems, for now, Hill, Haines and Maruca will have to go through the proper channels to get the county to approve their three-way land deal once the Natural Land Trust Advisory Committee reviews the purchase and Barcelona will have to wait, from the comfort of his home in Miami, Florida to get his $7,000,000 asking price for the Surf Club property.