Homeowner refuses to sell; O.C. threatens eminent domain: The Press of Atlantic City NJ, 10/31/06

By Michael Miller

A downtown [Ocean City] property owner said the city is in for a battle if it pursues eminent domain to take his wife's land.

C. Jan Mathes, of Newtown Square, Pa., said the city wants to buy his north-end vacation home for a new downtown parking lot.

Neither he nor his wife, Suzanne Mathes, is interested in selling. It's not the house itself that holds sentimental value, even though it has been passed down for three generations. The couple has local permits to demolish the house to make way for a new vacation home. Instead, it's the location at 724 Central Ave. they appreciate.

The home is far from any other residential homes. It is surrounded by a church, a parking lot and a thrift store in the heart of downtown in the resort's historic district.

“What's nice is we don't have any neighbors,” he said. “And we like looking at the murals on St. Peter's.”

Besides, it took years to get zoning and historical preservation permits necessary to demolish their old house and build a new one.

“We knew they would need five or six months to build it. We wanted to spend next summer there,” Mathes said.

The couple turned the home over to a demolition company Oct. 9 and went on vacation. Solicitor Gerald Corcoran sent the couple a letter Oct. 16 urging them to reconsider the city's offer to buy. In the letter, he noted that the property would provide parking to benefit Asbury Avenue businesses.

“If necessary, the city of Ocean City will exercise the right of eminent domain to condemn your property. It is hoped that can be avoided,” Corcoran said.

Mathes said he resents the ultimatum.

“As would any homeowner. We got a letter saying if you don't sell it, we're going to take it,” Mathes said.

And he questioned the legitimacy of the city's claim that a parking lot would be expressly for the public good. Neighboring businesses could use a city lot for their own uses, he said.

“It's not a blight. It's not a school. It's not redevelopment. Eminent domain is something that requires public need, not just private need,” he said.

Mayor Sal Perillo disagrees. He said he has experience in eminent domain from his public positions as solicitor for Newark and Atlantic County.

“This is a classic public use. Parking is a pretty precious commodity, especially in the downtown,” he said.

The city saw the couple's demolition plans as an opportune time to expand a nearby parking lot. The city estimates that reconfiguring the lot with neighboring city land would create 30 parking spaces. By comparison, two other city lots have just 110 spaces.

If the city waited until after construction was complete, it might have been too late, he said.

But the couple rejected the idea of selling.

“The problem we have is forever is a long time. If the city is going to develop the downtown and if it is to have more activity than it has now, there will be a need for more parking,” Perillo said. “This lot will be forever handicapped unless the city takes action now.”

Perillo defended the confrontational tone of Corcoran's letter, noting that the city has had several conversations with the owners about its interest in the property.

The city is awaiting an appraisal on the property. In the meantime, Mathes said he is not backing down.

“We will use legal means to protect our rights to build a house,” he said.

The Press of Atlantic City NJ: http://www.pressofatlanticcity.com