They say development would bring unbearable traffic and other intrusions, destroying one of the last parcels of open space on Cherry Hill's west side.
"People want that land as open space," said Tish Corbett, Colwick Civic Association vice president. "A lot of people grew up in this neighborhood, bought their parents' homes. . . . The whole area is developed. Where else, besides Cooper River Park and cemeteries, isn't developed?"
MCW Enterprises Inc., based in Delran, filed an application in December to construct two-story apartment buildings on the site, known as the Brunetti tract after its owner, North Jersey developer John J. Brunetti. MCW bought the development rights to the property for $4.3 million, according to papers it filed with the township.
The company plans 290 luxury apartments - including 12 for residents with low or moderate incomes - and 18 apartments for low-income residents with physical disabilities, according to its application. Nearly two-thirds of the property would be "green space," and a fence would separate the development from the adjoining neighborhood.
MCW representatives could not be reached for comment.
It will be months before Cherry Hill's planning board decides whether to approve the project - MCW has yet to complete its application, and the Community Development office has yet to review it - but Colwick residents are already preparing to fight it.
They said they feared that their neighborhood - with quiet streets lined with old but well-tended homes - would lose its character.
Children "ride their bikes in the street. They can walk. They can skate," said Denise Clendenning, who grew up in Colwick and moved back with her family as an adult. "They couldn't do that in the other neighborhoods."
The activists plan to contact businesses in the Colwick office park, seeking help to protest what they believe would be an increase in traffic and noise. The Inquirer's South Jersey bureau is a tenant in the office park.
Residents said a wide variety of animals, including foxes and falcons, and interesting plants live on the Brunetti tract, and the New Jersey Environmental Federation wrote a letter asking township officials to help preserve the land for that reason.
For the residents, the degree to which Cherry Hill's government has participated in their fight has become almost as important an issue as whether the development is built. Civic association leaders said they believed township officials were ignoring them, and the group's president, T.J. Scott, walked out of a Township Council meeting at which it was under discussion.
Mayor Susan Bass Levin, expressing some frustration about the criticism, said she backed the residents and had approached MCW about the township's buying the property to keep it as open space. She urged residents to follow the proposal if it goes before the planning board.
"I would like to buy that land," she said Friday. "I'm on the same side as the people who live there and the Environmental Federation. I would like to save whatever land we can."
Cherry Hill recently bought the Springhouse Farm, on the east side of town, for $3.25 million, protecting it from development.
"We're going to explore every option, just as we did on Springhouse Farm," Levin said. "It's not about east or west. It's about preserving open space all over town. We're a community."
A court order on Cherry Hill's affordable housing requires that any development on the Brunetti tract include 60 units of low- or moderate-income housing. MCW last week asked Judge Anthony L. Gibson of Atlantic County Superior Court for permission to build only 30 units there, and it is awaiting an answer.
Colwick residents said they would not mind a 60-unit affordable-housing complex, which would take up only about five acres. They just do not want a major development in their backyards, taking up what they have come to see as their private nature preserve.
"It's unique here," said Lucy Clendenning, Denise's mother, who still lives in the neighborhood. "It's a small community."
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