An Atlantic County town wanted to carve out a piece of a beloved park for a warehouse. Then Boy Scouts, birders, and dog walkers stepped in.
Egg Harbor City Lake Park was deeded to the city in 1872.
EGG HARBOR CITY, N.J. — The developer proposing a warehouse in the historic, wooded park didn’t come to the meeting, but the Boy Scouts did.
The scouts joined a chorus of area residents, environmental groups, and outdoors enthusiasts in a school cafeteria in this Atlantic County community last week, crammed together for nearly four hours with protest signs and prepared comments.
Some attendees cried and the faces of others bloomed red with anger, wondering how the city council would even entertain the idea of developing a portion of Egg Harbor City Lake Park, a 400-acre parcel in the Pinelands that’s been public land since 1872.
“We will challenge this in court. There’s no question about that,” Emile DeVito, of the New Jersey Conservation Foundation, told the council to cheers from the audience.
Even residents who’d come to the meeting in support of the project, such as a former Egg Harbor City mayor, were swayed by the comments and questions. By night’s end, with the tide against it and future litigation all but a certainty, the Egg Harbor City Council voted to reject a redevelopment plan for the park that a land use board had passed weeks earlier.
Jason Howell, of the Pinelands Preservation Alliance, said the meeting demonstrated “democracy in action.”
“It’s a great example of people organizing for positive change,” Howell said.
The following day, Egg Harbor City Mayor Lisa Jiampetti expressed disappointment that the plan was so vocally rejected. She believed that many of the speakers had been misinformed by social media campaigns and few looked closely at the plans on display in the cafeteria.
“It’s over and done with now, but we would have gotten a substantial amount of tax revenue from the project,” she said.
The average homeowner property tax in Egg Harbor City is $5,000 a year, the mayor said.
Jiampetti was also disappointed that TackleDirect, the fishing outfitter that proposed to build a 70,000-square-foot warehouse and retail building on 50 acres at the park, did not attend the meeting. She said the company, through a letter, had expressed COVID-19 concerns about the meeting.
“That was their only chance to make a case,” Jiampetti said.
Attorneys for TackleDirect declined to comment Wednesday.
Many in the audience questioned how a park that’s been public space for more than 150 years, complete with a swimming lake, campground, and ample sandy roads and trails that wind through the pines, could be deemed an official ”area in need of redevelopment” in the first place. To obtain that designation, the city’s Land Use Board conducted a study and concluded it met the requirements. The park was unimproved for a decade, the study found, and also vacant. The council approved those findings last month, paving the way for development there.
Before the public comments, however, Jiampetti took the stage and listed various improvements made on the park since she’s been in office, including new restroom facilities, docks, and a fishing pier. The lake is currently drained, she noted, because repairs are being made to the dam.
The park, Jiampetti said, brings in about $100,000 in revenue each year.
“The lake is not for sale and never will be,” Jiampetti told the crowd.
Those improvements, the audience later pointed out, contradict the results of the study.
“This is a crown jewel of the community, not an eyesore,” said Caren Fitzpatrick, an Atlantic County commissioner-at-large.
Several speakers noted the animal life seen at the park, including bald eagles and ospreys.
“It’s the first place I saw a whippoorwill,” one woman said.
At least six Boy Scouts spoke about all the time they’d spent at Egg Harbor City Lake Park, including the wooded portion of the property where TackleDirect had hoped to build.
“We really came here tonight to tell you to nip it in the bud,” said Steve Mazur, a troop leader out of Somers Point.
So, as the crowd thinned out, the council ultimately voted to rescind the previously approved resolution that adopted the redevelopment plan. Howell, of the Pinelands Alliance, said the plan won’t move forward.
Councilman Joseph A. Ricci Jr., after the vote, said he didn’t want to lose the contact with TackleDirect and hoped it could find a suitable location elsewhere in the city.
Several meeting attendees pointed out various parcels, empty buildings and shuttered businesses throughout the city that need tenants or buyers, particularly a former Acme that has been vacant for more than a decade. Jiampetti said filling those empty spaces isn’t easy.
“First off, we don’t own most of those sites,” she said. “I don’t know if there’s another suitable location for TackleDirect.
A day earlier, city resident Steve Layton sat in a folding chair along a sandy road by the empty lake. The sinking sun reflected off the mud. Layton, 70, said he comes to the park often, to get some peace but also understood why the city is searching for tax revenue.
“I mean, I sort of like coming out here,” he said. “But this city really needs some business.”