Brigantine vote to buy ex-school site goes quietly; objections come later

FEB 7 2008

Press of Atlantic City

BRIGANTINE – After more than two years of fights and lawsuits, the City Council made it all the way through a vote Wednesday to spend $2.6 million on a closed Catholic school campus without a peep of opposition.

But later, when the governing body asked for comments on their seemingly uncontroversial hopes for getting open-space grants to help pay for the 4.6-acre property, the deal’s most vocal opponent got the long-running dispute going again by objecting that the land shouldn’t qualify for that kind of funding.

Anne Phillips, a former councilwoman and one of three city residents who lost a suit to stop the city from buying the St. Philip The Apostle School, argued that “this area is not a beautiful, unspoiled, scenic piece of property. … I think you’re deceiving the people when you describe it as open space.”

That line of reasoning drew attacks right back from Mayor Philip Guenther – who took time in his earlier State of the City speech Wednesday to criticize a “scurrilous” suit that he said cost Brigantine more than $100,000 in legal fees – and several other council members.

The mayor noted Phillips’ membership in the Brigantine Taxpayers Association and argued that property owners in the town contribute about $1 million a year to Atlantic County’s open-space fund.

“I’m amazed that a taxpayers’ group in Brigantine doesn’t want a return on Brigantine taxpayers’ investment,” he said.

City officials said their plan is to ask both the county and the state’s Green Acres program for grants to buy a piece of the St. Philip school and the former Jersey Shore Marina on Bayshore Avenue.

Councilwoman Sue Schilling, who recently stepped down from a county freeholder’s seat, said Atlantic County’s goal has been to use the open-space tax to buy “500 acres a year. And how many acres has Brigantine gotten?” she asked. “Zip. So it’s our turn.”

But Phillips, whose suit charged that three council members had conflicts of interest on the St. Philip deal because they’re also members of the local Catholic parish that’s selling the land to the city, remained obviously unconvinced.

In other business, the governing body voted for a plan to cut off city funding for the Tourism and Business Development Commission. The commission had gotten a portion of two local license fees, but the council agreed to send that money – about $32,000 per year – to the city’s general fund instead.

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