By Donald WittkowskiIn a setback for opponents of the project, a state Superior Court judge overturned Ocean City’s denial of a proposed oceanfront condo-hotel that has languished on the drawing board for more than 10 years.Judge Julio L. Mendez ruled that the city’s planning board exceeded its authority and acted in an “arbitrary, capricious and unreasonable” manner when it denied site plan approval in 2016 for the Soleil Resort project.Mendez ordered the board to approve the site plan application. He found that the project fully complied with the zoning requirements of a city redevelopment zone where it would be built.“In the court’s opinion, the Board erroneously denied the site plan that met all the requirements of the Redevelopment Area Plan as enacted by the municipal governing body,” Mendez wrote in his 13-page ruling dated Aug. 9.John Loeper, the planning board chairman, declined to comment Friday on the ruling other than to say that there are still “some things up in the air” before the city can follow up on the judge’s order.One of Soleil’s developers said the project is expected to come back before the planning board in October for approval. He also said there has been no indication that the board plans to appeal the judge’s ruling.“They’re forced to approve it,” Joe Ernst, one of the principals of the project, said of the planning board. “They’re working on all of the paperwork now for getting it on the agenda in October.”His company, Ernst Brothers Designers and Builders, of Spring House, Pa., has teamed up with Select Properties Inc., of Colmar, Pa., to develop the Soleil project on what is now a parking lot at the corner of Ocean Avenue and 11th Street.The developers have proposed a 111-unit oceanfront complex that would function as a hotel. While the six-story building would remain a hotel resort, the individual units would be sold as condominiums.Condo owners in Soleil would fall under a 120-day stay limit throughout the year to ensure that their units would be available to hotel guests most of the time. That means the owners would be limited to 30 days in each season, preventing them from monopolizing their units during the peak summer tourist period.In an interview Friday, Ernst said the developers are in the process of applying to the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection for a coastal construction permit needed for the project. They are shooting for 2018 to start construction.“If all the stars align, spring 2018,” Ernst said.Ernst acknowledged it has been a long, arduous process for the developers since they first proposed the project in 2005. Since then, it has gone through a number of changes to reflect the wishes of the planning board as well as the conditions in the Ocean City real estate market.Ernst said the market is ripe now for a project that would give condo owners all the benefits of a resort-style hotel, including room service, maid service, a fitness center, a swimming pool and a host of other amenities.“The market couldn’t be any better in Ocean City right now,” he said.Ernst called Soleil a “top-notch building” that would stimulate the local economy. The project is proposed for a city redevelopment zone that envisions a first-class, resort-style hotel operating year-round. The developers have repeatedly said the project would comply with those requirements.However, the planning board members were skeptical of those claims when they voted 7-1 in April 2016 to reject the project. They concluded that the project fell short of the standards for the type of resort hotel that the city wants in the redevelopment zone.Some board members stated they did not believe that Soleil met the “spirit” of the city’s zoning law for the redevelopment area. They argued that the project was a hotel in “name only.”The developers responded with a lawsuit last year to challenge the board’s decision, culminating in Mendez’s ruling in their favor.The project also drew objections from some local business owners and members of the community. They contended that Soleil was a poorly disguised condominium complex, not the condo-hotel that the developers had insisted they wanted to build.In particular, the project aroused fierce public opposition from residents in the adjacent Flanders Hotel, which operates as a condo-hotel. Soleil was regarded as a potential formidable competitor for the Flanders, one of the city’s most historic and iconic businesses.During three stormy public hearings that led up to the planning board’s rejection of the project, opponents claimed that the Soleil was too big for the surrounding neighborhood and would create gridlock on local streets already congested during the peak summer tourist season.In response to concerns from the public and the planning board, the developers revised the project in early 2016. Changes to Soleil included more directional signs, a new circulation pattern to handle traffic, parking revisions, a more functional hotel lobby, more storage and housekeeping space and public bathrooms for a rooftop pool.The developers also eliminated a proposed porte-cochere from the building’s 11th Street frontage. In addition, they had planned to erect a new marquee for the parking garage and more wayfinding signs to help with traffic flow.The developers changed the project to a condo-hotel complex after the planning board in 2015 rejected plans for a straight condominium. The board stressed that it wanted a resort-style hotel as the centerpiece of the redevelopment zone.Select Properties and Ernst Brothers have not disclosed the project’s development cost. The companies have indicated they intend to build Soleil in three stages, starting with a condo tower on Ocean Avenue, followed by a parking garage and ending with another condo tower on 11th Street. An architectural rendering depicts the proposed Soleil Resort, a 111-unit complex that would function as a condo-hotel.