MARGATE – An OPRA request filed by a North Jersey attorney on behalf of homeowners who live in a proposed boutique hotel overlay zone along Atlantic Avenue between Cedar Grove and Coolidge avenues, has shed the light on restaurant owner Lou DiVentura’s plans to build a beachfront condo/hotel across from Lucy the Elephant.

“A group of people opposing the overlay zone hired my firm to request information from the state,” said Peter Primavera of Peter Primavera Partners, LLC of North Plainfield who has a background in historic preservation and is working for residents of Island House highrise across the street from Ventura’s Greenhouse.

“Public officials said there was no developer planning to do a highrise so we sent the OPRA request to the DEP and sure enough there was a pre-application meeting held in preparation for a CAFRA permit,” he said.

A string of emails between officials of the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection Historic Preservation Office and his professional team, confirm that DiVentura attended a pre-application meeting on March 1 and even provided the state with a shadow study to show that the proposed new high-rise building would not cast a shadow on Lucy, Margate’s National and State Historic Landmark.

A telephone call to DiVentura was not returned.

“It was the HPO’s finding that based on the information received, the proposed new development would have no adverse on Lucy,” Supervising Historic Preservation Specialist Meghan MacWillliams Baratta said in a May 10 email copied to Lucy’s Chief Executive Officer Richard Helfant.

The study plotted the footprint of the sun’s shadow with a profile of the proposed building, which would sit 25 feet from the bulkhead for 10 a.m. on June 21, July 4 and Sept. 1. According an email from Ventura’s project engineer Arthur W. Ponzio, the dates and time selected were appropriate for the use of the beach during the summer season.

“At all times later in the day, the shadow footprint onto the adjoining Lucy property would be significantly less (disappearing between 11 and noon, depending on the time of the season)” Ponzio wrote in his email to DEP officials.

Although the study also tracked Lucy’s views of the beach, Helfant said he is more concerned with the public’s view of Lucy driving down Atlantic Avenue from Atlantic City.

“The dune and raising Lifeguard Headquarters already ruined the view of Lucy from the beach,” he said. “My second concern is parking. The ingress and egress to the new building is on Decatur Avenue, which abuts our parking area. I am not as concerned with all that as I am about our ability to market Lucy to the public.”

The report was the “last open item and we would like to begin the permitting process,” Ponzio said.

DiVentura is required to first obtain DEP and CAFRA approvals to erect the building, however, he would still be required to obtain local Planning Board approvals, according to Commissioner of Public Safety John Amodeo, who oversees planning and development in Margate.

A week after Ventura met with the HPO, Ponzio updated DEP officials on things needed for the concept design to move forward, including agreeing to a 25-foot setback from the bulkhead line, doing the shadow study, maintaining the sight line to Lucy, and ensuring two parking spaces per unit.

The “Venture Margate Tower” building design prepared by Ralph C. Fey AIA PC Architects of Doylestown, Pa., shows two retail spaces between 1,000 and 1,500 square feet on either side of the lobby fronting Atlantic Avenue, parking for 27 spaces and a 781-square-foot beachfront restaurant on ground level, with two additional levels of parking, and a beachfront restaurant spanning the entire front of the building on the second and third levels. The project would have a total of 87 interior parking spaces and 30 exterior parking spaces and 48 residential units.

After pushback from residents, the Board of Commissioners on Thursday will table the proposed zoning ordinance change that would, in part, create a hotel overlay zone along the beach where high-rises currently exist. Residents voicing objections to building a high-density building in an area already congested with traffic, said they believe the project is already a “done deal,” and said the commissioners abused the public trust.

According to Amodeo, several years ago, Ventura had approached the planning board with a concept plan but pulled the application shortly thereafter.

“He’s been talking about doing something there for about 10 years,” Amodeo said, “but I never saw it.”

The ordinance change came about through the recommendation of the Planning Board as part of its 10-year Master Plan Review process in an effort to create some transient housing for visitors. The change was recommended after a year-long series of public meetings with community stakeholders who were charged with charting  future of development in the city.

In a press release, Mayor Michael Becker said there was too much misinformation about the ordinance, and that the public should have a better understanding of the Master Plan process and be able to offer additional public input before the governing body moves on any such ordinance.

Amodeo denied steering the process to bring boutique styled condo/hotels to Margate.

“If a developer or a business owner wants to go through a process of that complexity, he or she has every right to put that concept on the table,” Amodeo said. “He never approached me to come before the Planning Board.”

After learning DiVentura wanted to do a hotel/condo, the commission just tried to make it “a better venue” that would offer amenities to overnight visitors, he said.

Amodeo said he respects public input and would not push the idea of an overlay zone if people are against it.

“As a voter and a resident, I like the idea of a boutique hotel to supplement our business community, but that’s just my opinion,” he said.

He said the rumor mill and suspicion about the process is out of line with the city’s intentions.

“Things change over time, we just want it to change for the better,” he said.

Amodeo said he believes the Planning Board would have a limited timeframe to determine if it wants to recommend the city move forward with the overlay zone recommendation, or they could revise it or let it die.

“That doesn’t mean a developer cannot ask the Planning Board to approve it after they get DEP and CAFRA approvals,” he said.

Helfant believes the Planning Board could simply approve a use variance for DiVentura to build his condo/hotel, and that an overlay is not necessary.

When Helfant asked him, DiVentura denied he had a plan to build a hotel in the offing, Helfant said.

All the Save Lucy Committee wants is a new long-term lease and to be able to provide input on anything that would adversely affect Margate’s biggest tourist attraction, he said.

Helfant said he is also concerned that the Master Plan did not address Lucy in its historic preservation review, which included mentions for the Parkway section and Marven Gardens, that the Green Acres funded property where Lucy stands is included in the overlay zone, and that the committee has made no progress in obtaining a new long-term lease for Lucy. The current lease is due to expire at the end of 2019.

“Everyone should be a little more forthright and just tell the truth,” he said.

Categories: Downbeach

Nanette LoBiondo Galloway

Award winning journalist covering news, events and people of Atlantic County for more than 20 years.