Ocean City lifesaving station gets a breather

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Ocean City NJ Lifesaving Station. The building has been at the same location since 1885. The building is scheduled for demolition to make way for modern condos. (Rich Krents)

OCEAN CITY, N.J. - Ocean City's historic lifesaving station has been spared - at least through the summer.

After a court-imposed May 20 deadline for finding a buyer came and went, Superior Court Judge William Todd issued a stay of demolition for the vacant 1885 structure.

Todd said Friday that the building could not be torn down until a court appeal over its fair-market value was resolved. The appeal could stretch into the fall, a lawyer for the property owners said.

Even if it is resolved earlier, the structure cannot be razed until after Labor Day because of Ocean City's moratorium on demolitions during the summer tourist season.

After nearly a decade of legal wrangling over the landmark, at Fourth Street and Atlantic Avenue, another Superior Court judge last fall set the May deadline and a price of $1.1 million.

If a preservation-minded buyer wasn't found, owners Roger Parkin and Pansini Custom Design could demolish the station, Judge Joseph C. Visalli ordered.

Parkin and developer Raffaele Pansini bought the property in 1999 for $730,000 with the intention of tearing down the station, which was converted into a four-bedroom home in the 1930s, and building three condominium duplexes on the 100-by-200-foot lot, which is less than a quarter-mile from the ocean.

But preservation groups battled to save the building, contending it should become a community center or a museum.

The station has a storied past. The U.S. Lifesaving Service, forerunner of the Coast Guard, built the cupola-topped structure on what was once beachfront. When the Sindia, a 329-foot, four-masted commercial vessel en route from Japan, ran aground off Ocean City in 1901, rescuers used draft horses to pull surfboats and buoys from the rough-hewn building.

Eventually its location became an issue. By 1915, natural accretion had so fattened the barrier island that the station was too far from the sea.

The building remained an office for lifesaving crews until it was decommissioned and sold to a family, which made architectural alterations and lived there until the late 1990s.

As a neighborhood of early-20th-century summer cottages and, eventually, modern duplexes and condos were built around it, the painted red house became a curiosity.

Preservation groups mounted efforts to restore the station when it went on the market in 1999, but location again was a problem.

The building's protectors could not agree on whether to move the station or preserve it where it stood. The protracted tug-of-war prevented Ocean City from using millions of dollars in federal and state grants that had been obtained for its restoration.

The nonprofit Save Our Station coalition, which wants to keep the station where it is, launched the latest salvo when it appealed Visalli's November ruling.

SOS president Charlie London said the $1.1 million fair-market value was too high and virtually guaranteed that no buyer would be found.

In its appeal, SOS contended that Visalli had no legal basis for setting the price. SOS said it had the building, which has fallen into disrepair, appraised at about $850,000.

SOS also said the owners had failed to market the building to attract a buyer.

"This lifesaving station is a unique gem," London said.

A new owner could renovate the structure but must adhere to strict historic-preservation codes, city officials said.

Pansini, who previously offered to pay more than $500,000 to move the building to a boardwalk location the city offered as the site for a new museum, said his appraisers indicated that the station was worth at least $1.4 million. City tax officials have set the value at $900,000.

How the appeal will play out is anyone's guess, said Steven Scherzer, an Atlantic City lawyer who represents the property owners.

"My client is very anxious to see a resolution to this," he said.


Contact staff writer Jacqueline L. Urgo at 609-823-9629 or jurgo@phillynews.com.