Push to Preserve 7 Acres of Waterfront Property Advances

July 25, 2018
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By Chris Rotolo | 

The McConnell tract is a 7-acre plot of land in Atlantic Highlands and one of the last pieces of undeveloped Bayshore property. The plot, which is currently home to a catamaran club, is under threat of having 21 homes built on it. A citizen’s group named Neighbors for Waterfront Property hopes to save the plot with the help of Monmouth County and borough officials. Courtesy Fred Yahn / Eagle Drone

ATLANTIC HIGHLANDS – The borough’s government leaders will explore a collaborative effort with Monmouth County to preserve the last piece of undeveloped land on the Sandy Hook Bay.

The announcement came at the end of a July 11 Borough Council meeting, where approximately 75 residents packed the municipal courtroom for a presentation about conserving the McConnell tract, a 7-acre plot of land located between Avenue D and Bowne Avenue, which is targeted for development as 21 beachfront homes.

“We’re not making any more beachfront property,” Councilman Jon Crowley said. “When this goes, it’s gone forever. As elected officials, we have to be sensitive to the budget, because needs do arise, whether it’s a new truck or a failing bulkhead. We’re not going to be cavalier. We are thinking about the possibilities of those ratables. But the price of a ratable doesn’t compare to what’s priceless, which is this land.”

Crowley cited a chart of Monmouth County from 1972 to 2012, which showed that a majority of open green space seen four decades earlier had since been developed. He stressed to his fellow council members the urgency of this situation.

The borough’s intention to save the land from development was good news for Neighbors For Waterfront Preservation (NWP), a citizens’ group led by Benson Chiles, whose members envision the property as a park and a continued launch point for the town’s sailing education program.

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The group has appealed to the Monmouth County Board of Recreation Commissioners (MCBRC) and spoken with county Freeholder liaison Lillian G. Burry about having the county purchase the property and save it from development.

According to Chiles, the owner of the plot – Arthur “Bud” McConnell – has received a contingency contract from Denholtz Associates and a pending application is due to be heard before the planning board July 31.

Crowley’s comments preceded several concerns posed by Councilman Louis Fligor and Mayor Rhonda C. Le Grice, including a potential contamination issue resulting from past diesel fuel spills and subterranean oil pipelines. Assuming those underground pipes have not been removed, Fligor is also interested to know if they have been emptied or merely capped with product still inside.

“If we were interested in purchasing the land and it was contaminated, we would need to know if that liability belongs to the originator of the contamination or if the burden falls on the buyer,” Fligor said.

Sandy Hook Bay Catamaran Club sailors attended the June 11 meeting of the Monmouth County Recreation Commissioners. Photo by Chris Rotolo

If the municipality acquired the tract and it was proven to have severe contamination, Hubeny said the state’s Brownfields Redevelopment program could be a source of funding for remediation.

However, Hubeny also confirmed that approximately $2 million has already been spent on remediation of the property and the only contamination still present is located in the horizontal groundwater below, which he said should self-attenuate by 2030 and would not interfere with the placement of a structural foundation.

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The current asking price of the property is something Le Grice wondered about, as she noted that in past years, when the borough had looked into purchasing at least a portion of the plot, it was up to $1.5 million.

Chiles said the point of this effort is not for the municipality to purchase the land in full, but to support the county’s acquisition of the tract as a county park. Should the county use its funding to make the purchase in cooperation with Atlantic Highlands, it would alleviate some of the borough’s financial responsibility for the initial investment.

“In this case, what we’ve pitched them on is buying the property as a county park,” Chiles said. “It would not be a municipal park. But it can be negotiated where part of it can be county and part municipal. These are all discussions that need to happen. The request here is that the borough initiates that with Monmouth County.”

In terms of what the borough could potentially offer for the acquisition, Hubeny said the municipality will have about $600,000 in its open space fund after FEMA reimburses the town for approximately $331,000 in Super Storm Sandy repairs to the Bayshore Trail.

But it is future storm damage that has Fligor feeling leery about acquiring new water front property for this park.

“It cost us about a million dollars to fix up the trail on our own after Sandy and then another $80,000 after the next storm. And that was with the county’s help,” Fligor said. “That’s a lot of money for two storms and Atlantic Highlands can’t afford to keep doing that.”

The next Borough Council meeting is scheduled for July 25, where the members could potentially adopt a resolution to join the county in pursuit of the McConnell tract.

This article was first published in the July 19-26, 2018 print edition of The Two River Times.

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