OCEAN CITY — A petition drive is underway in an attempt to circumvent the Town of Ocean City’s attempt to acquire the World Gym property at 67th Street.
Last week, the Mayor and Council approved on second reading an ordinance that would authorize the city to purchase the existing World Gym property at 67th Street for a little over $1.2 million. The 18,000-square-foot parcel is one piece of a larger collection of properties sought by the city for a future water treatment plant.
The existing water treatment plant at 44th Street has been in service for over six decades and has outlived its useful life, according to city officials. To that end, the city has been piece-meal purchasing parcels in the area of 67th Street for the purpose of planning and ultimately building a new water treatment plant. The city has already purchased the old VFW Post property in the area of 67th Street for the same purpose.
During previous discussions about the property acquisition, citizen Tony Christ has made veiled threats to start a petition to attempt to stop the land purchase, pointing out the gym is an existing, taxpaying entity and a future water treatment plant would be better suited on a different piece of property. Shortly after the council approved the ordinance authorizing the purchase of the gym property last week, Christ enlisted the help of former Councilman Vince Gisriel, a fiscal watchdog who has mounted successful petition drives in the past, to draft a petition for this situation.
Gisriel said this week he too had been watching the potential purchase of the gym property move forward and was happy to oblige with drafting a petition at Christ’s request.
“He asked me a while ago when he heard of the acquisition to draft a petition for referendum,” he said. “We’re of the same mindset on this that they are about to take a taxpaying entity off the tax rolls. We’re of the mindset that is the wrong approach and there are other properties and other alternatives to consider.”
Gisriel suggested it was short-sighted to take a viable business off the tax rolls for the acquisition of a piece of property that might not be needed, or even possible, for a number of years. It was a sentiment shared last week by some on the council, who expressed concern the property purchase could force the current tenant out of business before it was necessary.
However, it’s important to note the current property owner fell in arrears on local and state taxes and ultimately foreclosed, which is how the situation got where it is now. Mayor Rick Meehan last week pointed out the town is purchasing the property now because it fell into foreclosure after not paying taxes for three years.
Nonetheless, the door remains open for negotiations to keep the gym up and running until the town needs the property for the future water plant. Gisriel said this week a successful petition drive for referendum could stall or prevent the property purchase altogether.
“It’s part of the philosophy of trying to be conservative with taxpayer money,” he said. “What is the right thing to do? Maybe this is one way to save a viable entity as a gym or some other viable use.”
Gisriel said he submitted the draft petition to City Solicitor Guy Ayres last week for approval and he approved it the next day. That started a 40-day window for organizers to garner enough signatures to bring the question to referendum. The city charter requires signatures representing 40 percent of those who voted in the last election.
With 2,566 votes cast in the municipal election in November, that sets the target number for a successful petition at 1,027, a figure that could be challenging, Gisriel acknowledged. Organizers have 40 days from the time of Ayres’ approval last week to garner the requisite number of signatures.
“By my calculation, that leaves until roughly the end of January to get enough signatures,” he said. “Getting enough signatures in the dead of winter is difficult, but it’s doable. The key is if there are enough people around who agree it would be better suited somewhere else.”
In September, the Mayor and Council voted to begin condemnation process for the gym property at 67th Street, which had been in foreclosure. Later that month, Wells Fargo purchased the property for $1.13 million at a public auction on the site. Because the town as a municipality was not allowed to participate in the public auction during a trustee sale, the town took the pre-emptive step to begin the condemnation process for the property.
Once Wells Fargo bought the parcel at auction, the town was free to negotiate a fair market price for the property, which has led to the proposed purchase for $1.2 million initiated earlier this month. It’s important to note the roughly $1.2 million purchase price would be funded through the town’s water department enterprise fund, a self-sustaining fund generated by water system user payments.