Mill Creek Pavilion Project on Hold Indefinitely
Stafford Township Mayor John Spodofora has put a freeze on plans for a pavilion or community center of any kind on Mill Creek Road. Now that the Bay Avenue Community Center in Manahawkin is up and running, and renovation plans and funding are in place for the Pine Street building, officials will take a wait-and-see approach to deciding exactly what makes the most sense for Beach Haven West.
His announcement came after a lengthy discussion back and forth with residents about the necessity (or lack thereof) of a stovetop oven in the mix – another in a years-long series of lengthy, at times heated discussions wherein Beach Haven West residents have complained that the proposed new facility was inferior to the one they lost in Superstorm Sandy, that it would be too small or insufficient based on preliminary designs.
Based on the bids received for Mill Creek, Spodofora explained, the investment in a facility there is projected to be “well in excess of $1.5 million, without the prospect of funding from any outside source” – meaning taxpayers would bear the entire burden, with interest.
“The mayor and council have unanimously determined that the most prudent course of action for all of the residents of Stafford is to delay the construction of a facility in Beach Haven West pending an evaluation of the existing facilities in operation; and at that time, if a determination is made to construct a new facility on Mill Creek Road, we will have adequate information upon which to determine the scope and size of the project based on the community’s needs.” Proceeding in any other way would be spending “haphazardly,” he said.
Beach Haven West Civic Association President Dawn Papatheodorou presented to the council a petition containing 430 signatures in support of a stove in the hypothetical Mill Creek Road facility, but she was disappointed that the petition did not elicit the reaction she had expected. “I came here in good faith. … These 430-plus people are standing behind me. You might not see them, but they’re here.”
“Every voter, every resident in this town means a lot to us,” Spodofora said. “We need to make the right decisions for all of them.” The mayor encouraged her to drop off the petition with the clerk.
Robert McManus of Phyllis Lane took the lectern during public comment to beseech the council to rebuild the Mill Creek Road community center to the specs of the one that was destroyed. The plans as previously discussed would have put a “pavilion,” not a full-sized community center, in place of the old one. “Beach Haven West deserves it,” McManus said. “We had it; we don’t need to lose it.”
Spodofora again explained: Immediately following Sandy, the Mill Creek Community Center was determined to have been irreparably damaged, which “triggered a three-year debate with FEMA and our insurer to secure funding to replace the building.” In weighing the options for a replacement facility, officials determined Mill Creek Road was not an ideal location.
The FEMA funds were for a new community center outside of a flood zone. “It was known from day one that we did not have money from FEMA, or the insurance company, to rebuild on Mill Creek,” the mayor said.
Shortly after the storm, Hollywood superstar Alec Baldwin donated $250,000 to Stafford Township for the town to use as it saw fit. In an interview with The SandPaper in December 2012, Baldwin did say the donation was to rebuild the Mill Creek Community Center – but he was talking about making a gift to a community he knows little to nothing about, and that was before any serious planning had been done to determine the location of the new facility.
So town officials instead looked to the site of the old town hall on East Bay Avenue, which had functioned as a community center and an emergency station immediately following the storm. They found it better suited in terms of location, functionality, proximity to other public services and emergency response, be it flood or fires, Spodofora said. “The old town hall site is on the edge of the flood zone, not in the center, and in fact suffered no flooding during Sandy,” he added.
So the new Bay Avenue Community Center was built in a more central location accessible to a greater number of residents, using borrowed money and reimbursed by the federal government. Any construction to be done on Mill Creek would have to be bonded and not reimbursed.
The debates surrounding a possible Mill Creek facility have fueled officials’ concerns, the mayor said. The size, scope and amenities are all at issue.
What had been preliminarily designed to be a “kitchen” consisted of some cabinets, a refrigerator, a sink and a microwave oven. “It was just in order to heat things or keep things cold when there’s an event there,” Township Administrator James Moran said. There are freestanding grills outside in the park there for grilling during picnics. Adding a stove inside would lose 200 square feet because it would need to be enclosed.
Rich Carlson of Timberlake Drive, president of the Colony Lakes Homeowners Association and a restaurant equipment salesman, said the inclusion of a stove is not as simple as the petitioners would like to think. “That’s going to do nothing more than cost the residents a lot of money.”
Mill Creek area residents don’t want to have to “schlep” over to Bay Avenue when they have a special event involving hot food. But, like it or not, “the Bay Avenue (Community Center) is the replacement for the Mill Creek center,” Moran said.
Manahawkin resident Pat Sharkey said as a church pastor he often used to drive over to Mill Creek from Ocean Acres for events. His idea? Why not save the taxpayers a million dollars and not build it at all?
Some Beach Haven West residents feel their needs should be prioritized because they pay higher property taxes. “We pay most of the taxes here,” McManus said.
But Council President Dave Taylor shot that right down, telling him Beach Haven West’s share of the town’s total property tax income “is 23 percent. Period. You don’t pay all the taxes in the town.”
Spodofora, too, rejected McManus’ viewpoint. “I really disdain the argument of saying, ‘I pay more taxes so therefore I’m entitled to something different or something more than somebody else,” Spodofora said. “I don’t care how many taxes anybody pays. Somebody lives in a $150,000 house or somebody else lives in a $600,000 house – they get the exact same services and help from our town. It makes no difference to me, at all, how much in taxes you pay.”
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In other business, the mayor and council adopted on first reading an ordinance codifying the agreement reached between the Fair Share Housing Center, an affordable housing advocacy group, and the state court concerning the required number of affordable housing units.
“We were one of the first (towns) in the state to reach a settlement,” Moran said. The settlement provides for 20 percent in multi-use zones (meaning residential apartments above commercial operations). In other words, for every five units a builder builds, one must be set aside for affordable housing.
Councilwoman Sharon McKenna reported on year-end tallies for recycling and building inspections. Recycling in 2016 enabled the town to avoid $309,029 in tipping fees at a landfill. But some more education is needed about the town’s single-stream system, she said. Recyclable items include aluminum and tin cans, plastic and glass containers, corrugated cardboard, junk mail and newspaper. Bottle caps are not to be recycled. Other non-recyclables: foil cooking trays, flower pots, No. 5 plastics (e.g. margarine, cream cheese and yogurt tubs), light bulbs, window glass, blue glass, ceramics, stemware, mirrors. Helpful little reminder magnets are available at public works and the township building.
The Stafford Township Building Department also services Eagleswood, Beach Haven, Surf City and Harvey Cedars. The number of inspections conducted (in the categories of building, electrical, plumbing, fire and housing) in the 2016 calendar year is a staggering 15,505, broken down as follows: 12,469 in Stafford; 558 in Eagleswood; 1,061 in Beach Haven; 793 in Surf City; and 586 in Harvey Cedars.
“This is a lot of work; our inspectors are out there,” McKenna said. “If you are hoping to get something inspected, make that appointment, and know that they are going to get to you.” Call 609-597-1000, extension 8562.
Councilman Paul Marchal informed the public of discussions with Jason Hazelton and the rest of the Stafford Township Historical Society about defining what constitutes a landmark. The group is working on a proposal to incorporate important landmarks into the town’s master plan, without hurting the community but with preservation in mind.
“If we don’t watch our past, we’ve got no future,” Marchal said. He praised efforts already underway at Heritage Park and the restoration of the 19th century Old Baptist Church on Route 9.
Moran provided a few noteworthy updates:
The so-called East Road project – a reconfiguration of the intersection with Route 72 near the Exxon station – is moving forward. The state Department of Transportation has issued a declaration of taking for some right-of-ways adjacent to the project, which is the final administrative step in the process. Construction was slated to begin in late spring of 2017; Moran said late fall is a good bet now.
“Everybody knows what a (traffic) nightmare it is by Walmart and BJ’s and Exxon,” he said. “All of the road system behind the Exxon was built in anticipation of the East Road project being done by the state – and the state failed to do that for the last 14 years. We have a great road system back there, but no way to supply the road system effectively.”
Spodofora added town officials have been attending meetings with DOT officials for the last 14 years.
Lastly, Moran said FEMA has awarded the town $140,000 in grant funding to renovate the Pine Street building, as well as a grant extension through June for the grant supplying the funding for master plan evaluation and update.