By Donald Wittkowski
A long-awaited vote on Sea Isle City’s updated master was delayed Monday night and may not be held until mid-2017 while questions remain about the town’s affordable housing obligations.
The Planning Board has been working on the master plan for more than a year and was scheduled to take a final vote at Monday’s meeting. However, Chairwoman Patricia Urbaczewski announced a vote cannot be held until the city finalizes an agreement to comply with the state’s affordable housing requirements.
James Pickering, Planning Board solicitor, said Sea Isle officials met in November with a judge who is overseeing a court case involving the affordable housing requirements for several municipalities. As part of the case, the judge has given Sea Isle until February to reach agreement with the state on the number of affordable housing units that would be built in the beach town.
Once an agreement is reached, the affordable housing requirements would be incorporated into the new master plan. Pickering said City Council would first have to approve the housing agreement before it is added to the plan. Urbaczewski and Pickering indicated a final vote by the Planning Board may not come until mid-2017.
The master plan’s recommendations on housing and zoning cannot be completed until the affordable housing agreement is finished. In the meantime, the Planning Board plans to send a letter to City Council outlining a list of projects that it considers to be a high priority.
Councilman John Divney, who sits on the Planning Board, said the list will allow the city to get “the ball rolling” on those projects while negotiations continue on the affordable housing requirements.
Of particular importance, the board wants the city to move ahead with a series of flood-control projects recommended in the updated master plan. “The city should implement a comprehensive Flood Control Plan in partnership with the County to address flooding issues,” the master plan says.
Another project that is considered a “high funding priority” in the master plan is the proposed conversion of the now-closed Sea Isle City Public School into a community recreation center. The school closed in 2012 due to declining student enrollment. Since then, there has been debate over whether to demolish or redevelop the school site. The Planning Board recommends conducting a study to determine the best way of using the school for community recreation.
Altogether, the master plan includes 42 recommendations, including a series of proposed changes to solve what are widely considered the town’s most serious problems — overdevelopment and a lack of parking. Most of the recommendations grew out of a community survey conducted last year that generated more than 3,300 responses from the public.
Considered a blueprint for the future, the 58-page document proposes sweeping zoning changes aimed at reducing density and parking problems in both the commercial and residential areas of the city.
Once the Planning Board grants its approval, the master plan would next go to City Council for its consideration, including possible changes, before it takes a vote.
Sea Isle last updated its master plan in 2007. Under New Jersey law, municipalities are required to update their master plans every 10 years. Sea Isle is actually a year ahead of schedule, which gives it some flexibility and more time for approving the document, Urbaczewski noted.
The master plan is considered a guide post for future growth. It looks at key issues, such as planning, zoning, economic development, housing, the business community, transportation, parking and recreation.
Marcia Shiffman, a planner with Maser Consulting, the firm that helped the city update the master plan, said during a public hearing in September that the zoning recommendations were “pushed” by the comments in last year’s community survey.
Two principal complaints that emerged from the survey were overdevelopment and a shortage of parking. Hoping to alleviate those problems, the Planning Board has proposed a number of changes to reduce density and create more parking.
In the master plan, some of the commercial areas would be rezoned as residential to curb overdevelopment. In addition, the plan includes a series of proposed requirements in residential and commercial areas that would lead to more parking.
Sea Isle’s year-round population, currently about 2,100, has fallen 25 percent in recent years, but the number of summer residents has “increased significantly,” Shiffman said.
The rising summer population has been accompanied by the construction of so-called “monster” homes — large vacation houses that have contributed to the city’s density and parking problems.