News Writing: Reporting on the Rebuild

The following article, headlined “New Seaside Park Funtown Pier Plans Revealed” when published in February 2015, highlighted an oceanfront amusement pier owners plans to recover from Hurricane Sandy and the subsequent fire that destroyed all that stood on the site, in 2012 and 2013, respectively. The details and depth of the piece provided the only insight in the new plans, which were widely shared due to its regional name recognition and associated interest.

The following is a premium feature from the pages of the new Seaside Park Sandrunner – a weekly digital news reader from the Riverside Signal. To get more real community news from Seaside Park and other local towns directly to your inbox, click here.

by Erik Weber

SEASIDE PARK – An informal presentation last week of amusement pier owner Billy Major’s plans to rebuild Funtown Pier here – largely destroyed by Hurricane Sandy in October 2012 and then in totality by a fire 11 months later – included a request to consider an ordinance allowing taller rides than the borough’s current 50-foot-limit allow.

Stephan R. Leone, partner in the Toms River law firm Carluccio, Leone, Dimon, Doyle & Sacks, represented Mr. Major during the informal presentation at the Feb. 10th land use board meeting and stated that the ordinance would “permit a height of 100 feet throughout the pier – the Funtown Pier area – [and] that 35 percent of the pier area allow a height of 250 feet and 35 percent of that area allow a height of 300 feet. We’re not seeking approval to do this but to illustrate what the ordinance would allow if the governing body passes it.”

A site plan and several boards showing renderings and photos of potential rides was then presented by Toms River-based architect Henry Hengchua.

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“What we have is a layout similar to what was before,” he said, walking the officials and residents present through the layout that highlighted about a half dozen potential taller rides – including a zipline, the destroyed Tower of Fear reborn as Space Shot, a sky coaster and a vertical swing, among others – while “distributed through all these areas are kiddie rides.” One rendering showed the taller pier amusements clearly visible in the skyline from the vantage point of a motorist traveling over the Thomas A. Mathis Bridge into the Seaside boroughs.

It was noted several times that the rides and renderings were potential ideas and not a formal proposal of what would be installed.

The architect, drawing from experience in designing other amusement areas as with the Six Flags amusement park chain, explained that the layout of an amusement area is to provide several visually appealing “anchor” attractions spread out throughout the development to draw visitors through other entertainment areas with smaller rides geared towards different age groups “so the whole site can be utilized and enjoyed by people that visit them.”

“What we want to do is attract people to all these things – to attract them, you need to have contrast,” he said. “A beautiful lady cannot have 50 beautiful ladies next to them – you must have enough space to attract you. It’s the same principal.”

Mr. Hengchua added that the taller rides were unlike dense buildings or other structures which, particularly in the face of high ocean winds, would not be preferable compared to “very efficient structures” with porous structures to allow wind’s passage and minimal footprints so as not to “contribute any visual density of the whole area.”

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Mr. Leone reiterated that the group was not present seeking any approval on a ride site plan, but to illustrate what the ordinance would permit if the land use board recommended it and the council adopts it, adding that Mr. Hengchua was stating “they may be high but they’re transparent – you can see through them.”

The attorney noted an application denied in the late 1990s to build the Tower of Fear – a 225-foot-tall freefall ride – on the pier in the borough that was rejected and eventually built anyway ten feet away within Seaside Heights on a section of the pier owned by several other families that Mr. Major leased at the time prior to Hurricane Sandy and the 2013 fire that obliterated any remaining vestige of the amusement area and nearby game stands and shops.

“I don’t have the lease any longer – they have the property for sale and they’re not going to build a pier anymore, they’re going to sell it as-is,” said Mr. Major, adding that the cost to rebuild the pier would cost approximately ten times what it initially cost to build by then-Seaside Heights Mayor J. Stanley Tunney in the 1950s as Funtown U.S.A. following a June 9th, 1955 fire that swept away the original Freeman’s Amusements and pier. “I wouldn’t make it without the rides I had in the Heights from paying the bills. It’s just what the kids want today – the rides are bigger; they make more money than the kiddie rides.”

Mr. Leone asked Mr. Major whether such rides were “necessary for the investment you have.”

“Yes,” replied Mr. Major.

Several board members stated concerns over visual and aural impact of the rides at night, with board vice-chair, Michael Giuliano, stating that noise traveled when the rides were at lower heights and may travel farther from higher heights.

“For example, I live approximately one mile from the pier, and from the Tower of Fear in Seaside Heights, if the wind was blowing in the right direction, you could hear people screaming until it was shut down at night,” he said. “It was very noisy.”

Board Member Anthony DiCaro stated he felt the rides would attract “thrill seekers” and agreed that the noise would be an issue, adding that he could hear the pier from his home eight to nine blocks distant when it was in operation.

“The first thing the board needs to address is do you want an amusement pier in Seaside Park? Does it have an economic benefit to the community?” interjected Mr. Leone, stating that the pier’s attractions brings people to the borough who spend money at the restaurant and rent hotel rooms. “You’ve got to have a viable attraction or they’re not going to come. All the kiddie rides would get the population coming to this – the fact is that you will with a mixture of those things.”

“If you don’t want a pier with amusements, there will be no noise, but to be a viable entity you’ve got to make it attractive to those that would come to this pier,” he continued. “That’s what Mr. Major is seeking support to do.”

The attorney added that the pier’s reconstruction would cost millions of dollars and therefore needed to have a “viable business located on it to help pay for it – if the rides are limited to 50 or 100 feet, it isn’t going to happen.”

Board Member Charles “Chuck” Appleby stated that he was likely the only board member still serving from the time that the Tower of Fear was rejected and this time opposed the informal proposal due to noise concerns and questioned whether Mr. Major was mainly trying to attract patrons away from Casino Pier, several blocks north in Seaside Heights.

Mr. Major responded that he would be attempting to “attract people from all directions.”

“It seems like a very thrill-seeking environmental to compete with the Heights, which I don’t doubt you have to do and make the business work for everybody,” said Mr. Appleby. “My opinion is it’s a lot of noise and a lot of sight and lights walking that pier – it’s not something I’d like to see.”

“If you don’t want the noise and you don’t want the lights you’re wasting our time here,” shot back Mr. Major. “That’s the long and short of it.”

The board then opened the presentation to members of the public present for comment. The majority of those who spoke used the opportunity to scold the board and express vehement support for the amusement pier and proposed new height ordinance.

I Street resident Faye Haring started by reminding the board that when the borough had brought in two carnivals to town in the months and years since the hurricane and fire in an attempt to attract visitors to town, it did not succeed to the level that the amusement pier would have.

“Because of the fact we had no boardwalk for younger families, they weren’t coming,” she said. “This is a chance to bring them back.”

The I Street resident added that the majority of the rides were not like the former Tower of Fear but more single to double based rides like the zipline or vertical swing, which could not hold as many patrons at one time.

“How much noise can one or two people make when they go through this ride?” she asked. “As to the possibility of lights – I think we need that. I’m sorry for you who live up there close by, but we need this activity to bring people back here, to bring families back here in the summer.”

“We are picking up but we don’t offer anything, and if we don’t have Funtown, we don’t have anything to offer young families,” Ms. Haring continued, adding that the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association that serves Seaside Park offers a weekly fishing and crabbing contest and other activities are offered by borough recreation and other groups “but we need something permanent where someone can go and young families and kids can enjoy themselves and do something in the evenings.”

She closed by adding that the noise should be less of a concern, particularly at night, as most homes were equipped with air conditioning to replace having windows open all night as earlier in the 20th century.

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Cheryl Raley, proprietor of the Charlroy Motel directly across from the municipal parking lots that serve the beachfront and pier, was overwhelmed with emotion as she approached the board, at turns lightly sobbing and forceful in her statements.

“I need the pier. Business is off. It was real bad after the storm, and it’s still bad,” she said. “We are a resort town. We all bought into a resort town and we all need to stay a resort town.”

“I’m sorry – my motel is now fourth generation owned. If I do not have a pier and amusements then I do not have a business,” she said. “I am five generations worth of family presence in this town, and I cannot sustain what I have without a year-round pier – plain and simple.”

South Ocean Avenue resident John Welch next spoke, stating that he had been in Seaside Park for 15 years and that “one of the reasons we came was the excitement, the dual nature of Seaside Park – it’s a rush with the grandkids and all the things that happen in the summertime and a lull, especially now. We love it and are excited for summer to come.”

He said that his family and residents had winter breaks for the slower times to enjoy the town.

“When I hear people screaming I look and see and am excited about knowing I’ll get my rest later on,” Mr. Welch continued. “The fun of Seaside Heights and [Seaside] Park has been around a lot longer than I have, and we don’t want to lose that – we need people to have a reason to come here, if not for summer rentals but to buy our homes in years to come and keep the values up.”

Borough Administrator Bob Martucci approached the board and noted that entertainment venues are exempt from noise regulation in New Jersey.

Stockton Avenue resident Pat DeGutis struck a less enthusiastic note on the amusement pier proposal than earlier residents who spoke.

“I am a neighbor and probably one of the few that’s here, so the noise is particularly important to me,” she said, next asking how many rides would use pneumatic systems that she said create more noise than others, then adding that Mr. Major hadn’t “always been a good neighbor” when he had a ride years ago that played very loud music. “I could hear every single tune and note – I’m hoping for some peace and quiet. There are some birds here I’d like to listen to once in a while.”

“Yes, we need the boardwalk,” Ms. DeGutis continued, adding that she had been in her house as long as she has been alive, “which as you can tell is a pretty long time.”

“I think I had to adjust quite a bit to the changing times, but I think 300 feet is more than I care to adjust to,” she said, asking how many smaller rides for children would also be present.

Mr. Major estimated about 25 in comparison to the six to ten larger ones for older kids and adults.

“Sorry, I’m not in favor of these very tall rides or the ones that will cause thrills and screaming,” said Ms. DeGutis. “And I certainly hope none of them play music because I’ve certainly had enough of that.”

Following the open public session, Mr. Leone stated that the board review the proposed ordinance with the height changes, “make your own recommendations as to it and send it to the governing body with your recommendations.”

He added that if they wanted to discuss it further that he and Mr. Major could be present at another land use board meeting in the near future.

“I think we definitely want to discuss it further – we’ve heard comments from the business side, from the resident’s side and we’ve got to lot to think about,” said Mr. Giuliano. “This zone is somewhat freewheeling so it’s different from a site plan approval.”

“Your town is at stake, we realize that,” said Mr. Leone. “It’s very important this be given the thoughtfulness you’re expressing and in the best interest of the town.”

He added that if the majority of the board were fundamentally opposed to having an amusement pier at the site, “then nothing we ask to do will be accepted. If you’re committed to having an amusement pier here, it has to be viable or it cannot be done. The ordinance we proposed is reasonable what we need – there can be some modifications and added conditions. We’re asking you deliberate on that and have us back if you like and make recommendations.”

Mr. Giuliano asked whether Mr. Major would be able to have anything ready for the 2015 summer season if approved.

“He can’t start construction unless he knows there is a viable ordinance to allow him to put his rides there,” said Mr. Leone.

“I could possibly get one or two things up there this year if I knew,” said Mr. Major. “I don’t want to put them up and have to take it down – I’ve done that before. I gotta know what I’m doing and where I’m going.”

The above content is (c) Riverside Signal LLC. No reproduction or usage is granted without explicit written permission. Failure to do so will result in our joyfully defending our rights to the letter of the law at the expense of the offending party.

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