For the last month, Ed Blumenthal has been toggling between his day job as a business owner and studying tedious, land-use case law at night.
His foray into the legal world began after he received a letter from Margate officials in December that left him stunned. The one-page notice detailed plans for a bi-level, 18-hole miniature golf course squarely in the middle of the city's central business district, and two properties away from his modest vacation home of 20 years.
Days later, the Philadelphia man drove 60 miles to Margate's municipal building and pored over renderings of the Congo Falls Adventure Golf, complete with a 256-foot clubhouse, signage, and only two parking spaces. On the course's lower level, plans call for players to walk inside a cave surrounded by waterfalls and ponds. Rope bridges, a riverboat, and a small water tower are also incorporated into the design.
The course is being built on land where a bank once stood adjacent to a Wawa sometimes referred to as "Club Wa," because at the height of summer, hundreds of rowdy teenagers have been known to congregate in the parking lot at night. The golf course, now under construction and set to be finished by the summer, could completely transform the landscape of Margate's central shopping district along Ventnor Avenue— and not in a good way, Blumenthal and many other residents say.
A Planning Board meeting in mid-December drew dozens of people speaking for and against the proposal. The city approved fencing, parking, and signage variances at the request of the developer Adventure Golf South LP, allowing plans to move forward. The company, led by South Jersey businessman Mark Benevento, also operates more massive courses in Avalon, Ocean City, and Sea Isle City. Another effort by Benevento to bring mini golf to Ventnor Avenue failed in 2009 after the community pushed back.
So Blumenthal took matters into his own hands.
He raised more than $2,000 from the community and filed an appeal of the board's decision in Superior Court last month, contending that the lot is not zoned for recreation. He is representing himself in court but has hired a land-use consultant for help.
Blumenthal is also seeking to appeal variances approved by the Planning Board to allow a sign and fewer parking spaces. While construction continues, Blumenthal said the course will have to come down if a judge accepts the appeal and rules in his favor in the coming months.
The developer and Blumenthal disagree on whether the appeal was filed within the required 45-day deadline.
The lot's previous tenant, Ocean First Bank, was demolished and foundation piling for the new structure began in early March. On a recent day, a handful of workers were on site. So far, the walls of the clubhouse have been built, and large wooden poles have been erected.
Chris Baylinson, a lawyer for Adventure Golf South, said the appeal has no merit. He said Margate's central business district permits a wide array of uses, including recreation defined under a "retail services" category. He said the Zoning Board approved the project without additional parking because some existing stores in the central business district had already been grandfathered in without parking. A bike rack outside of the course will hold 30 bicycles.
"It's the change in activity I trust he is not happy with," Baylinson said of Blumenthal. "For the few months he comes down to the Shore, he wants total peace and quiet."
Bennie Management Inc., a South Jersey real estate company managed by Benevento, bought the property last year for $1.2 million, according to property records. Benevento, who has been in the mini-golf business for more than 30 years, said he saw an opportunity to bring family entertainment to a Shore town he says lacks recreation for kids.
"There haven't been things in Margate for families," Benevento said.
City officials see the course as fitting in with a new master plan for the town that was approved last year. The plan aimed to develop ways that Margate could continue to thrive as it becomes more of a tourist destination. Margate has about 6,000 year-round residents, but the population swells to about 30,000 in the summer.
Currently, business owners have a short period of time to reap the benefits of commerce from summer visitors, said zoning officer Roger McLarnon, who hopes the golf course draws customers to surrounding shops and from other largely residential surrounding Shore towns.
It's not the first time developers have tried to bring mini golf to Margate.
In 2009, Jay Weintraub, a summer resident, led a group of neighbors in blocking a mini golf course proposed by Benevento and former Philadelphia 76ers president Pat Croce. It was planned for the lot on which the Margate Food Truck now stands on Ventnor Avenue, but Benevento had not yet purchased the property or evaluated the site.
A community-led committee raised thousands of dollars and compiled a petition with 400 signatures, Weintraub said, and the developers withdrew the application.
He hopes Congo Falls meets the same fate. Many families, he said, choose to live in Margate because it is quieter and more residential than neighboring towns such as Ocean City.