Developer Unveils Public Access Plans For Waterfront Tract

September 5, 2018
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Aerial view of the McConnell Tract in Atlantic Highlands. Photo courtesy Eagle Drone/Fred Yahn

By Chris Rotolo

ATLANTIC HIGHLANDS – The developer seeking to build 21 homes on 7 acres of bayfront property says he wants residents to know he has no plans to prevent public access to the prized waterfront.

Steven Denholtz, CEO of Denholtz Associates, said the pushback his team has received for its plan to develop the McConnell Tract – one of the last significant pieces of undeveloped land on the Bayshore – is misinformed. His organization intends to set aside nearly a quarter of the plot for public use, he says.

According to Denholtz, if his application is approved, the company will not only give approximately 1.5 acres of the property back to the public domain – including the entire waterfront portion of the land – but is prepared to completely rebuild the property’s bulkhead, and install a 10-foot wide boardwalk with a 100-foot wide walkway area along the front of the property. Though final figures have not been calculated, Denholtz anticipates the project will cost his company in the range of $1 million.

“I know developers wear the black hat, but I don’t ever go into a project where I don’t think I’m wanted, this project included,” Denholtz said in an Aug. 23 interview with The Two River Times. “I think I’m unusual, in that, what we try to develop is something that is part of the community we’re building in. I didn’t find out there was going to be such heated discussion around it until we were into the process for well over a year.”

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Denholtz said that previous developers have tried and failed to acquire the land from its longtime owner, Arthur “Bud” McConnell, but their high-density housing plans were not in sync with the wishes of residents, or a borough ordinance that zoned the property for three single-family units per acre.

“We tried to do a low density development because the residents don’t want the impact of multi-family units,” Denholtz said. “This is a quiet town and we wanted to build a quiet development. That’s what the town wanted, it’s how they zoned it, and it’s exactly what we provided for: 21 houses on 7-plus acres of land.”

Benson Chiles, who heads the Atlantic Highlands residents group Neighbors for Waterfront Preservation (NWP), said the public statement of this development plan may seem like a pleasant gesture on the surface, but raises several questions concerning points of access to the waterfront property and boardwalk, public parking for those visiting the property, and where the responsibility of maintenance of the site falls: on the developer, or the municipality?

“I suspect the land they’re talking about setting aside is land that can’t be developed anyway,” Chiles said in an Aug. 24 interview with The Two River Times. “It probably doesn’t change the calculus too much for them. It may seem like goodwill, and for some people maybe it will be more satisfying, but most of the people I’ve talked to would like to see the entire property be preserved.”

Denholtz said the development group could have constructed eight of the 21 lots – which will each be listed for $1-2 millionto run all the way down to the water’s edge with private docks, but instead decided to help the town create more pathways and public access to the waterfront.

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“Not only are we not destroying the waterfront, we’re adding to the public domain, with a significant amount of beautiful, usable waterfront property,” Denholtz said.

Chiles and NWP made an appeal to the Monmouth County Board of Recreation Commissioners in June with a plan that called for the purchase of the McConnell Tract and its transformation into a 7-acre park, complete with a playground, community garden, and band shell.

“There has been some outcry for a park to be built there instead; for the town or the county to come in and spend many millions of dollars to buy the land, and then develop it,” Denholtz said. We’re giving this land to the town for free, at no cost to anyone. We’re absorbing 100 percent of the costs.”

Borough resident and NWP member Michael Evans said the plan “makes the development a little more palatable,” but pointed to the 12 variances still being sought by Denholtz Associates as a major point of contention.

“I think that’s where most of the problems arise for us. The variances just don’t sit well,” Evans said on Aug. 24 at the Sandy Hook Bay Catamaran Club. “But to hear the developers come back with a decent response like that, I think it does make the situation slightly better.”

This article was first published in the August 30-Sept. 6, 2018 print edition of The Two River Times.

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