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Wildwood sees new hope for back bay development

Wildwood sees new hope for back bay development

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WILDWOOD — After years of discussions, proposals and plans that fell through, Mayor Pete Byron has new hope that a development project will transform a sprawling back bay site into a multimillion-dollar development.

“We met with a number of potential developers,” Byron said. The city has put out a request for proposals, due back on Feb. 2. “By next week, we should have an idea how many people are interested.”

The site once served as the city dump, covering 26 acres between Susquehanna Avenue and a waterway known as Post Creek Basin. That’s an enormous amount of waterfront space on any New Jersey barrier island.

For now, the site is a sea of broken concrete and dense phragmites, flanked by the city recycling yard and Spicer Avenue and West Baker Avenue, a street so muddy and rutted it appears to be a dirt road.

Wildwood has tried for years to lure development to the site. It was declared an area in need of redevelopment in 2002, and at one point the housing giant K. Hovnanian discussed plans to develop the property, but walked away as housing prices crashed more than a decade ago.

More recently, former Mayor Ernie Troiano touted a million-dollar deal for the site, but no contract was ever signed and Byron said that deal is dead.

According to Byron, any developer will face a huge task in properly capping the site and acquiring the needed permits to develop it. The city is not expecting a big payment for the land. Instead, he said, the benefit would be in future tax ratables and in spurring further economic development.

“The value isn’t in the up-front money. The value is in the future,” he said. “Right now we’re not collecting any taxes on the property.”

Any successful proposal should come from a developer with experience dealing with brownfields, he said, in reference to the redevelopment or reuse of a property where there may be contamination.

The former dump was mostly used for household trash and vegetable waste, but was also a dumping ground for construction debris, according to state reports.

In 2019, the state approved a closure and post-closure plan for the site, according to Lawrence Hajna, a spokesman with the Department of Environmental Protection.

“The approved plan calls for capping the former municipal solid waste landfill with a low-permeability soil cap,” Hajna wrote in an emailed response to a request for comment.

So far, he said, the city has not told the DEP about specific redevelopment plans for the site. If it is to be redeveloped for residential or commercial uses, he said, the city would need to hire a licensed site remediation professional to oversee the investigation.

“If Wildwood plans other types of redevelopment — such as open space, recreation or renewable energy — the closure and/or disturbance would be overseen by the DEP. In either case, DEP land-use permits would likely be required as well,” he wrote.

Almost every shore town used to have its own dump, usually in the marsh. In other areas, the former dumps have been capped and redeveloped as golf courses, residential development and other uses.

In previous discussions, the property has been considered as a site for a solar panel array, for 100 new homes or even for 300 homes, but so far, none of the plans have panned out. The city did get paid for one use: in 2014, Ocean City paid more than $1 million to use the site to deposit silt dredged from its lagoons.

In a perfect world, Byron said, the site will eventually be home to a mix of residential and commercial uses, possibly including a marina.

“We’re going to leave that up to the developer,” he said. Byron hopes to have a decision by early March. Whatever plans receive approval, he said, the developer will face a huge cost up front, not only to ensure the former landfill is ready to develop and receive the needed state and federal permits for waterfront development, but also to create the roads, utility connections, new bulkheads and other work that will be needed.

“There’s no infrastructure back there,” he said.

According to Byron, the speculation of new development is already driving investment in the west side of town, pointing to a line of townhouses nearing completion on Susquehanna Avenue, valued at about $600,000 each.

“I don’t think it’s a coincidence,” Byron said.

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