By Donald Wittkowski
Sea Isle City’s first updated master plan in nearly 10 years includes a series of proposed recommendations to solve what are widely considered the beach town’s most serious problems — overdevelopment and a lack of parking.
Considered a blueprint for the future, the document proposes sweeping zoning changes aimed at reducing density and parking problems in both the commercial and residential areas of the city.
The Planning Board, which has been working on the updated master plan for more than a year, gave the public a chance to comment on the document during a hearing Monday night attended by about 55 people.
Two prominent members of the local business community argued that the zoning recommendations are too strict and could harm Sea Isle’s tourism-based economy. They predicted that some local businesses would disappear if the proposed changes are given final approval.
“I really want you to think about the impacts,” Christopher Glancey, president of the Sea Isle City Chamber of Commerce and Revitalization, told the Planning Board.
Joe Romano Jr., owner of Sea Isle Ice Co., said the zoning changes would “swing the pendulum all the way to the other side.” He warned that longtime business owners could see their investments jeopardized.
Glancey said the zoning recommendations would essentially reverse the progress the city has made in the past 10 years to rebuild its business base. He maintained that mixed-use projects that combine commercial development with housing would be most vulnerable to tougher zoning requirements.
“The business on the ground level has to be saved,” Glancey said. “Every time we lose a business, it doesn’t come back.”
Planning Board Chairwoman Patricia Urbaczewski pledged that all of the public comments collected during the hearing will be considered before the board votes to adopt the master plan.
The Planning Board could take action as soon as its Oct. 11 meeting. Councilman John Divney, who also sits on the Planning Board, said he saw no reason to delay the vote.
“I didn’t hear anything that we can’t deal with at the next meeting,” Divney said in response to the public comments Monday.
The Planning Board would be free to amend the master plan before taking a vote on the final version. Assuming 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 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.
Altogether, Sea Isle’s updated master plan includes 42 recommendations. Most of them grew out of a community survey conducted last year that generated more than 3,300 responses from the public.
Marcia Shiffman, a planner with Maser Consulting, the firm that helped the city update the master plan, said the zoning recommendations were “pushed” by the comments in the survey.
She noted that 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.
“Parking is a big issue. It was a big issue in the survey,” Shiffman told the audience at the hearing at City Hall.
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.
“There was a major concern about a lack of parking in the summer, so that has been addressed,” Shiffman said.
The updated master plan reflects the changing demographics, including Sea Isle’s aging population base and the declining number of school children, Shiffman added.
The Sea Isle City Public School closed in 2012 due to declining student enrollment. The master plan proposes converting the old school into a community recreation center. The Planning Board has designated the project as a “high funding priority.”