BERKELEY – Most of the big problems in town this year came from forces outside of Berkeley. For example, COVID-19 and an economy dominated by online retail have left more of a mark on residents than any local issues.
Here, we look at the biggest stories of 2021:
Although no shovels have hit the ground, there were big plans announced for some spots on Route 9.
Warehouse space, a convenience store, gas station, a solar field, recreation and a fast food restaurant are possible things that could replace the former Beachwood Mall on Route 9 in Bayville.
This is very early in the planning stages, and things could change. The plan was just for the front 40 acres or so, facing Route 9.
M & M Realty Partners and Lennar Corporation formed a joint venture where they will redevelop the spot. Years ago, they intended on making a mix of commercial, office/professional, and residential buildings. They had planned big box spots, pad sites, and a downtown walkable feel.
However, the economy is far different now, explained Ron Aulenbach, director of engineering, planning and development for Edgewood Properties.
A local resident pointed out the language in the redevelopment plan, calling it a “last mile” warehouse. This is the terminology used by Amazon. The retail giant wants warehouses in smaller towns in order to make deliveries faster.
The redevelopment plan is opening the door to Amazon, but doesn’t guarantee that company will be walking in, Township Business Administrator John Camera said.
Meanwhile, not far away, the driving range area of the iconic Blackbeard’s Cave will be torn down and turned into a public storage facility.
A developer who is in the process of buying the land, Marble Arch Homes of Lakewood, applied to the Zoning Board in order to build it.
Brian Murphy, engineer for the developer, said that the property consists of three lots. One lot has Route 9 frontage and 8.71 acres; it is where the storage area will be. A second lot, 12.617 acres with Route 9 frontage, will remain with the current owner. The last lot, 40.9 acres, has no frontage on Route 9, has wetlands, and could be sold to the county as open space.
Part of the land is owned by the Johnson Rents company, he said. The Johnson family had owned quite a bit of property, including the Beachwood Mall and the asphalt plant behind it.
The driving range and the parking lot would be demolished to make room for 91,260 square feet of self storage and a small office. There would be 22 stalls in the back where people could park RVs and boats for storage. There would be no boat racks and no vehicle maintenance allowed.
These are of course just plans. Whether any of them come to fruition remains to be seen.
New Police Chief
Kevin Santucci took the reins of the township’s police department.
Former Chief Karin DiMichele retired after 10 years as chief, and 26 years as a Berkeley officer.
Santucci was deputy chief under DiMichele and was promoted after her retirement. He joined Berkeley police 20 years ago.
Santucci began his law enforcement career in 1999 working summers with the Seaside Park Police. In 2001 he started in Ocean Gate and months later joined Berkeley. In 2008 was assigned to the Ocean County Prosecutor’s Office Special Operations Group, assisting in narcotics and gang related investigations.
He made sergeant in 2009, worked in the patrol division, supervised the marine unit, and performed administrative duties and internal affairs investigations.
From 2013 to 2018, he was promoted to lieutenant, then captain, then deputy chief. With each new title came more responsibility and leadership.
Route 9 Repaved
Drivers breathed a sigh of relief as a stretch of Route 9 covering Berkeley was repaved.
In addition to the usual wear and tear that happens to a road that old, Route 9 also had a lot of cut outs from utilities. The end result was a bumpy driving experience.
The work was part of a $9.1 million improvement project that includes lighting, construction of curbs and ramps that are compliant with the Americans With Disabilities Act, sidewalks, milling and paving of approximately eight miles of Route 9 between Jones Road, Lacey and Longboat Avenue, Beachwood. In the future, traffic signals will be upgraded at 13 intersections.
Keith Pinto was working at the White Sands beach on August 30 when a sudden storm tore through the county. Pinto, 19, was killed by lightning and seven others were wounded.
“Words cannot describe how so many of us are feeling right now,” said Chase Vander Vliet, who organized the fundraiser on GoFundMe.com. “We lost a special guy tonight, one who was so close and meant so much to so many people.”
Pinto was a graduate of Toms River High School North. He was known for his kindness and his dedication to his loved ones. His death impacted a lot of people who took to social media to share their feelings.
COVID, Of Course
No discussion of the year is complete without the defining story of 2021. Although the virus made landfall in 2020, on an international level, the coronavirus dominated the 24-hour news cycle to the point of exhaustion.
The vaccines became widely available in 2021. Although ‘breakthrough’ cases of COVID-19 do happen among the vaccinated, they are generally of a weaker intensity. Statistics showed that unvaccinated were six times more likely to have to go to a hospital.
As the medical community learned more about the virus, state regulations reflected that. Many people expressed frustration that the guidance and the Executive Orders seemed to change almost weekly.
A very vocal minority of residents urged school officials to fight back against Trenton, but school officials have said that they face punishment from the state if they don’t follow the rules.
While some events, like the Ocean County Fair were still cancelled, other events like the fireworks over the Toms River and the Halloween parade came back.
Protection From COVID Lawsuits
Senior communities opened their public buildings and allowed residents to use their amenities like pools and meeting rooms. However, the protection from lawsuits against these communities was not to last forever.
State law was changed to indemnify those who run these buildings. They are called “common areas” and include more than just senior communities. However, in this area it is almost entirely seniors who are being impacted.
The law granted protection from any lawsuits against the community and members of its boards. Before this protection was granted, a visitor could theoretically sue the Board of Directors and the directors individually if they thought they contracted coronavirus in the clubhouse, for example. That protection ran out on January 1, 2022.
As state voters approved a referendum in 2020 to legalize cannabis industries, each town had to decide whether to allow them or not. Most decided against it. Only South Toms River and Lakehurst approved them.
Berkeley was one of the towns to ban them.
Commissioner Little Retires
County Commissioner Gerry Little, 72, of Surf City, announced he would not seek re-election. He had been appointed in 2003 to fill the term of the late James Mancini. He has held the seat ever since.
The title of “commissioner” was once called “freeholder.” They oversee all county operations. Upon his announcement, many prominent Republicans stepped up to fill his shoes. Ultimately, Little Egg Harbor Mayor Barbara Jo Crea was selected by the local GOP, and she won the seat in the November election.
Commissioner Vicari Eyes Trenton
County Commissioner Joseph Vicari threw his hat in the ring for the GOP nod for governor early in the year before eventually withdrawing his name.
He urged that whoever does get the nod should faithfully serve Ocean County residents and not just look to them as a pack of votes.
This was not the first time Vicari had considered a run for this office. At least one other time he had put out feelers to gauge his candidacy going back at least 15 years.
GOP Boss Pardoned
President Donald Trump granted clemency to 143 people on his last day in office, including former Ocean County Republican Chairman George Gilmore.
Gilmore, of Toms River, was convicted of not paying federal income tax for his employees and lying on a loan application. He was sentenced to one year and one day in prison. Gilmore had been in the process of appealing his conviction on the tax evasion and fraud charges.
According to The White House press release, he has made important civic contributions over his career in New Jersey.
Gilmore’s law firm did work for a number of towns, which dissolved their contracts with him after his arrest. He also had to step down from being chairman of the county Republicans. Frank Holman took his place, but Gilmore is reportedly still very influential in local politics.
Sandy Loans Forgiven
It’s been nine years but municipalities that still owed the federal government money after Superstorm Sandy had their loans forgiven.
This amounts to more than $25 million in New Jersey alone. In Ocean County, there were $12 million outstanding in these Community Disaster Loans.
The bill forgiving these amounts was championed by Congressman Frank Pallone, Jr. (D-6th), Congressman Andy Kim (D-3rd), and Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-12th). It was signed into law as part of the government operations bill by President Joe Biden.
Some towns have already started repaying these loans but there was still a lot left over. The only way towns would have been able to pay it back would be to raise taxes.