Two Land Use Board Members Disqualified from Hearing Fantasy Island Application in Ship Bottom

Meeting Is Standing Room Only; Discussion to Continue April 17
By GINA G. SCALA | Mar 27, 2019
Photo by: Ryan Morrill

Ship Bottom Council President Edward English and Councilman Robert Butkus did not hear a use variance application that could bring family entertainment to the vacant CVS at the Causeway Circle, despite being sitting members of the Land Use Board. By law, borough council members must recuse themselves from the hearing prior to testimony beginning since the council will hear any appeal on the application.

Wainwright Amusement, which owns Fantasy Island in Beach Haven, is seeking to renovate the existing commercial structure on Long Beach Boulevard at Seventh Street and convert the use from retail to family entertainment. The proposed entertainment center – which would include a game zone, an escape room, café and XD theater – requires a use variance since entertainment is currently not a permitted use in the borough’s general commercial district.

A use variance, according to the Ship Bottom municipal code book, can only be granted by an affirmative vote of at least five Land Use Board members.

The application is being opposed by the owners of Hartland Golf & Arcade and Our Endless Summer, both located in Ship Bottom. They are being represented by Douglas J. Widman, an attorney out of Freehold.

Widman objected to the public notice regarding the Wainwright application, first heard by the land use board last week, saying it didn’t specify what special variance was being requested by the applicant.

“The notice doesn’t have to be specific,” Stu Snyder, board attorney, said prior to testimony beginning March 19 in front of a standing-room-only crowd with members of the public spilling out into the hallway of borough hall.

Before the meeting began, the fire marshal, who was in attendance at the back of the municipal meeting room, declared the room at capacity. The meeting, which was slated to end at 10:30 p.m. in accordance with the board’s policy, didn’t adjourn until 11 p.m.

Brian Wainwright, manager of Wainwright Amusement, testified during the 2½-hour discussion on his application that the idea of bringing family entertainment to Ship Bottom is to solve the problem of traveling to be entertained. Currently, the closest escape room experience is about 30 or 40 minutes away, he said.

The intention is for the center to be open all year, and be available for private parties, birthday parties, and even team-building sessions in the off-season, he said. Wainwright Amusement assumed ownership of the vacant CVS building in February, he said.

Within the next year or so, the state Department of Transportation is expected to undertake the final phase of its $312 million federally funded rehabilitation and expansion of the Causeway, which includes squaring off what is known locally as the Causeway Circle. The site of the former CVS building is within the area where Long Beach Boulevard would be converted into a two-way road.

Scott Kennel, a traffic expert with McDonough-Rea Associates, the Manasquan-based transportation consulting firm retained by the applicant for a traffic study of the area, said he believes a family entertainment center would generate less traffic than a pharmacy “because of the stay time,” he said, noting the area is prime for pedestrians and bicyclists, and for parents to drop off their children. “If there are 60 patrons (inside) and there’s two in a vehicle – that’s if everyone drove – it’s 30 vehicles.”

Thirty-nine parking spaces are required, Kennel said. Forty-two are provided for, he said. When he looked at the existing arcades, the parking is more than double at the old CVS building, he said.

“We’re big bikers in Ship Bottom,” said Lindsay Meneses, who lives on West 20th Street in the borough, when public comment finally opened up at 10:30 p.m. “We almost never take our cars out.”

While acknowledging the area in question is congested, she said a family entertainment center won’t make it any worse.

“No variance or other relief may be granted by the board unless such variance or other relief can be granted without substantial detriment to the public good and will not substantially impair the intent and purpose of the zone plan,” according to the Ship Bottom municipal code book.

Residents of East Seventh Street are arguably the most impacted by the proposal but spoke in favor of it during the final 30 minutes of the meeting.

“You be a good neighbor,” Duane Watlington said, “(and) we’ll be good to you.”

Some concerns they would like to see addressed include moving the trash area from Seventh Street, which has more than 30 homes, to Eighth Street, and for the hours of operation to end at 10 p.m.

“We’re not going to be a Seaside Heights,” Fred Madonna, who lives year ’round on Seventh Street, said in response to Widman’s question about whether approving a use variance would change the character of Ship Bottom. “Ship Bottom is dead at 10 p.m.”

Kathy Shaw, who lives on 20th Street in the borough, said she supports the proposed family entertainment center and believes it can comfortably co-exist with Hartland Golf & Arcade and Our Endless Summer.

“I go to Acme and ShopRite,” she said. “I have BJ’s (wholesale club) and Costco memberships. I don’t think it has to be this or that.”

Deliberations on the application will continue when the board reconvenes at 7 p.m. Wednesday, April 17 in the municipal meeting room at borough hall.

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