By DONALD WITTKOWSKI
How much sand can $24 million buy?
Next year, Ocean City will find out exactly how much.
The city has been approved for a major beach replenishment project that will restore eroded sections of the shoreline with huge amounts of fresh sand.
City Business Administrator George Savastano said the project is expected to be completed before the summer season of 2023 and will cost around $24 million.
Storm-damaged beaches in the north end of Ocean City and the downtown section will be restored, Savastano said Thursday night while giving a report on the project during a City Council meeting.
“Obviously, that’s where we need it the most,” he said of the north end and downtown beaches.
Savastano and Mayor Jay Gillian were among the city officials who discussed the beach replenishment project with representatives of the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection during a call this week.
The funding breakdown includes $17 million that will come from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers through the newly approved $1.5 trillion federal spending bill. The NJDEP’s contribution for the beach replenishment project is expected to be around $7 million.
Beach replenishment projects are primarily funded by the federal government. Under the funding formula, the federal government kicks in 65 percent of the cost, while the NJDEP and the towns that are getting their beaches replenished subdivide the remaining 35 percent.
Steve Rochette, a spokesman for the Army Corps of Engineers, the federal agency that supervises beach restoration projects, said the funding is a key step leading up to the award of a contract to a private company to do the work.
He noted that the Army Corps does not have a firm timetable yet for when Ocean City’s project will begin because it is still early in the planning process. It is possible construction could take place in the fall, winter, or spring of 2022-2023, depending on the availability of dredging equipment, he said.
After an unusually harsh winter at the shore, some sections of Ocean City’s beaches and sand dunes have suffered significant erosion. For instance, the dunes along a particularly vulnerable stretch of beach at Fifth Street have been washed away by storms, leaving sharp, cliff-like drop-offs.
At this point, the Army Corps doesn’t know how much new sand will be deposited on the beaches because the project is still in the early stages, Rochette explained.
The project will help the tourist-dependent city keep its beaches in tip-top shape so it may continue attracting summer vacationers.
Besides the aesthetic value of having wide, powdery beaches, the city will also benefit from the replenishment project by having a bigger barrier of sand and dunes to protect homes, businesses, the Boardwalk, and roads from the ocean’s storm surge.
Ocean City is on a three-year cycle for beach replenishment as part of a 50-year agreement with the Army Corps of Engineers.
In other business at Thursday’s meeting, Council voted 7-0 to introduce an $88.8 million municipal budget for 2022 that keeps local taxes stable.
Reflecting the city’s strong recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, the budget includes $174.5 million in new ratables this year fueled by the red hot real estate market. The budget also benefits from strong revenue growth in key areas such as beach tag sales and parking.
“We’re lucky to have extra revenue in this budget. We’re lucky to have extra ratables in this budget,” Frank Donato, the city’s chief financial officer, told Council.
Also underscoring the city’s stellar financial health this year, the budget surplus shot up to a record-high of $10.4 million. Of that amount, $5.4 million will be used to help underwrite the budget, while the remaining $5 million will stay in reserve in case it is needed later.
Donato said the city’s strong finances are something that “I think we should all be proud of.”
Under the budget, the average property owner with a home assessed at about $650,000 will pay $3,068 annually in local taxes, he said. That figure does not include school or county taxes.
A public hearing and final vote on the budget are scheduled for the May 12 Council meeting. Council is free to make changes to the spending plan before it is given final approval.
In other business, Council voted 6-1 to give final approval to a new ordinance that promotes the use of electric vehicles. Councilman Tom Rotondi cast the dissenting vote but did not publicly state a reason for his opposition.
The ordinance mirrors state requirements for electric charging stations and the number of parking spaces that would be reserved for EVs when new commercial projects are built.
Currently, Ocean City has only one charging station for EVs. It is located in a parking lot behind City Hall.
Separate from the new ordinance promoting EVs, the city was recently awarded a $150,000 state grant to build two new electric charging stations at the Transportation Center parking lot at Ninth Street and Haven Avenue.
The grant was part of the state’s EV Tourism Program, which is intended to expand access to electric vehicle charging stations at tourism locations throughout New Jersey.
Also Thursday, Council met in closed session for about an hour before the regular public meeting began to discuss pending litigation over a block of land the city is acquiring along Haven and Simpson avenues between 16th and 17th streets.
The city plans to preserve the land as open space to protect it from dense housing construction.
However, efforts to reach a final price for the property have been contentious. The land consists of three separate parcels that had been owned by two private groups. The city used its power of eminent domain to seize the property but has been bogged down in a court fight over the price it will pay to the two groups.
Ocean City’s hyper-inflated real estate market has increased the value of the land since the city first took steps to acquire it. As a result, the city will pay millions of dollars more to close the deal.
Under the latest price being discussed, the city would pay a total of about $17.2 million for all three tracts of land. That figure represents a significant increase above the approximately $12.5 million purchase price discussed earlier.
The final cost is still being litigated. City Solicitor Dorothy McCrosson declined to comment about Council’s executive session, citing the pending litigation.