By PETE WALTON
Nearly 75 percent of participants in a survey on the future of a borough-owned former church in Bradley Beach do not want to convert the building into a community center.
Results of the survey were made public online earlier this week. There were 927 responses tallied. Eight replies were not counted after a review showed they did not come from borough residents, homeowners or business owners, according to Borough Administrator Kim Humphrey.
“We are excited by the response rate for the survey,” Mayor Larry Fox said. “We have a wonderful, responsive community,” the mayor said in an online message as he thanked those who took part.
The borough hired Miranda Nash of Communications Design Consulting to develop the survey, which was conducted between July 15 and 31. Persons without their own access to the web-based form were given the opportunity to participate through other means.
Fox, Humphrey and the borough’s communications consultant, Mairin Bellack, met with representatives of local newspapers Tuesday morning for an informal exchange about the borough’s information gathering process regarding the church.
Several citizens, including Paul Neshamkin, president of the Friends of the Bradley Beach Community Center, tried to attend the meeting to observe but were not allowed to do so. Fox said the public could not be present at the session because it was not advertised as a public meeting.
Representatives of the two local newspapers present asked to be provided with the state statute permitting the meeting to be closed to the public. The borough officials at the meeting said that the requested information would be furnished.
“There are serious concerns with the way our administration distributed this survey, and the misleading choices that they presented,” Neshamkin said after the results were released. “Many residents never received this survey. Inaccurate mailing addresses provided by the borough rendered many of the survey postcards undeliverable.”
He said members of the group heard from local postal employees that an unspecified number of postcards could not be delivered. Neshamkin said his organization made an effort to reach out to renters, saying many of them told him they had not received anything from the borough about the survey.
A non-binding referendum question about the future of the former First United Methodist Church at 319 LaReine Ave. will be put to voters on the Nov. 8 general election ballot.
As approved by the mayor and Borough Council late last month, the question reads, “Should the Borough of Bradley Beach renovate its borough-owned real property and currently vacant structure located at 319 LaReine Ave. (Block 41 Lot 1) in order to create a Municipal Community Center at an estimated cost of $10 million?”
Fox said he believed the vote on the referendum would most likely reflect the survey results.
The borough purchased the former church from the Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association for $1.3 million in January 2020. According to real estate professionals, the property could be worth as much as $3 million if the building is demolished and the land divided into four lots for single-family homes. Unlike the tax-exempt status granted to the church, the lots and future improvements would be added to the borough’s tax base.
Earlier this year, the non-profit Preservation New Jersey designated the church building as one of the 10 most endangered historic places in the state.
Of those responding to the survey, 88 percent were residential property owners. A question near the beginning of the survey asked the participants about their initial feelings regarding the community center proposal. Approximately 58 percent felt “strongly negative or negative” about the idea, while just more than 23 percent felt “strongly positive or positive.” The rest said they were neutral.
Respondents were given the opportunity to review supplemental materials as they completed the survey. The summary of results provided by the borough showed that approximately 80 percent of participants partially or fully reviewed the documents.
In a section of the survey regarding tax implications, citizens were told that the owner of an average home valued at $812,511 would face a cumulative cost to each taxpayer of $7,518 over a 10-year period.
“Through 2034, the tax burden increases to a total of $14.5 million,” the survey said. “This figure includes all projected operational costs (property acquisition, repairs, and operating) through 2034.”
When asked if they understood how their taxes could be impacted if the project moves forward, 93.5 percent of respondents said yes.
“The financial costs in this survey are significantly overstated and misleading,” said Neshamkin of Friends of the Bradley Beach Community Center. “These costs have been presented to the public by the administration without Borough Council review or approval. Borough financial professionals have not included any details on how they calculated annual operating and maintenance costs over the first 10 years, nor did they make an effort to estimate potential revenues that could be generated from events.”
Neshamkin said the survey “dramatically overstates potential taxpayer costs.”
“Any borrowing by the borough to renovate this structure would be amortized over a 30- or 40-year period,” Neshamkin said. “The $10 million cost estimate includes significant work that is not needed and was not requested. Restricting the renovation work to necessary repairs — using the engineers’ own estimates — would reduce the total cost to less than $6 million. This would cost the average household between $116 and $137 per year.”
“We can save this beautiful, historic building, and we can do it affordably while supporting our children, our seniors, our veterans, and our community,” Neshamkin said.
Analysis of the survey results can be reviewed at the borough web site, bradleybeachnj.gov.