By CAROL GORGA WILLIAMS
The construction on Deal Road at its intersection with Route 35 is part of work associated with the Ocean Town Center, a mixed use development taking shape on centuries old farmland and whose construction has been the subject of numerous lawsuits for more than 10 years.
The current plan had attracted opposition from community members gathered under a grassroots group called Save32Acres, who feared the project was too intense for the site. After a series of lawsuits to block the project, the developer, Paramount Realty, now has the green light.
The company, owned by Maurice Zekaria, who is a local resident, opted to proceed during litigation, having submitted bonds to the township to cover the cost of restoring the property should he not prevail in court, according to Ronald Kirk, director of Community Development and planning administrator for the township..
The developer already has commitments for a WaWa, Chick-fil-A, Miller’s Ale House and a Turning Point restaurant which would have its corporate offices on the second floor. It is the structural steel for Miller’s Ale House that can be viewed from the state highway side of the proposal. There are another three units for retail remaining to be filled.
“Anyone has the right to file a lawsuit but the developer also has rights and after bonding, he or she can proceed and (the bonds would pay for ) everything to be taken out and the land restored to its original condition,” said Kirk noting there were 14 hearings that examined the proposal over five years.
So as the commercial side of the development rises along Route 35, Deal Road construction proceeds. Kirk did not have an end date for the project but the Ocean Town Center Facebook page indicates township zoning actually provides for a higher density use in that area but its design will improve the roadway and correct or mitigate existing traffic problems and safety concerns. Plans call for an additional lane on Deal Road from Logan Road to Route 35.
“There are so many variables under today’s conditions,” Kirk said of a construction timetable.
Existing zoning would have permitted 197,750-square-feet of retail and 100 residential units but the proposal provides for less than that, at 40,000-square-feet of retail, 68- age-targeted townhomes and an extended stay hotel which Kirk described as a “boutique” facility. About eight acres of the 32- acre site are wetlands and would not be developed but some public amenities are part of the plan, including outdoor seating, open areas for charity and community events and a dog park, according to the developer.
“All of this results in significant positive tax revenue for the township while permitting township residents the convenience of one-stop shopping,” Kirk said.
Save32Acres initially had filed a lawsuit to overturn the overlay zone the town created in 2017 to permit the mixed-use district. The overlay district means that the development is a permitted use under the township’s zoning ordinance which gave opponents very little legal wiggle room to quash the plan.
The group lost in state Superior Court in Freehold but a state appellate court resurrected the case. After that case failed to advance, the group in December 2019 filed an appeal of the initial Planning Board approval which was a 6 to 2 vote in favor of the project..
Meanwhile, the developer continued work – after submitting bonds to the township, which meant he was proceeding at his own risk. Had the litigation been successful, those bonds would have paid to restore the site to its original condition or something near that.
Paramount’s acquisition of the property also put to rest a 16-year old lawsuit filed by the former owner which had proposed a Stop and Shop but who claimed the township had altered its zoning to prohibit such use.
The property settled by Thomas Woolley in the early 1700s still boasts remnants of the farm, including an artesian well and foundations of the Woolley home. The well will be restored and preserved under this proposal, according to Paramount Realty’s website.
The town in 2000 acquired 43 acres of the roughly 75-acre vacant farm, which was then part of the estate of Emanuel and Matilda Terner. Ocean paid $7.2 million for the land which then became the location for the library and historical museum. The land abuts a portion of Joe Palaia Park.