Kevin Riordan: Cherry Hill residents oppose rental development

At the proposed site of a Cherry Hill apartment complex are opponents (from left) Martha Wright, Bert MacKay, Susan McNaughton, and Eric O'Dell.
At the proposed site of a Cherry Hill apartment complex are opponents (from left) Martha Wright, Bert MacKay, Susan McNaughton, and Eric O'Dell. (APRIL SAUL / Staff Photographer)
Posted: April 05, 2013

Eric O'Dell found out an apartment complex had been proposed for his part of Cherry Hill from a flier someone left on his windshield. He was stunned.

The impassioned e-mail he subsequently wrote was forwarded all across town, which is how Lynda Yamamoto heard the news.

And a phone call is what brought Susan McNaughton, a veteran of Cherry Hill development disputes in the 1970s, back to the front lines.

"This is the biggest organized thing about a zoning issue I've ever been involved with," McNaughton, 66, said.

The prospect that a 152-unit rental development could rise on the former Haddonfield Lumber store site has inspired what could be called the Battle of Brace Road.

The pushback from surrounding neighborhoods combines old-fashioned grassroots advocacy (feet on the street, bodies in the seats at municipal meetings) with digital activism (websites, Facebook pages, online fund-raising).

Like the public concern about the future of the Woodcrest Country Club, the conflict arises from the never-ending evolution of South Jersey's signature postwar suburb. Arguably underused sites like Haddonfield Lumber are ripe for redevelopment.

"Giant apartments looming over the Croft Farm [recreation area] is just, wrong," says Martha Wright, who designed, distributed, and displayed signs protesting the project.

A marketing executive who lives in the late architect Malcolm Wells' spectacular home, Wright, 57, seems an unlikely activist.

The same holds for O'Dell, 45, an online entrepreneur, and Bert MacKay, 63, a commercial banker and past president of the Barclay Area Civic Association. They're average citizens, like others among the 300 people who have donated to the association.

The money is helping pay for a residents' lawsuit, filed in Camden County Superior Court on February 15, to halt the project. Yamamoto, an attorney who lives about a half-mile from the site, is representing the plaintiffs.

"The [zoning board] process should be followed as set forth in the statute," she says. "It is my opinion that was not done."

The township zoning board voted last September to grant a variance allowing residential development on the nine-acre commercial site near Brace and Kresson roads.

Neither the applicant, Buckingham Partners, of Cherry Hill, nor their attorney, Kevin D. Sheehan, of Mount Laurel, would comment.

The fact that 23 of the 152 apartments will be affordable units is not an issue, opponents insist. They say they worry most about additional traffic in and around the already-clogged vicinity of Brace and Kresson, as well as the impact on the school system.

They also object to the process that led to the variances - particularly the timing, and abrupt cancellation, of various municipal proceedings.

"Despite our passionate appeals, we were treated with such disdain, such a lack of respect, it got to my core," O'Dell said.

Mayor Chuck Cahn "feels strongly that [public input] is always welcome," township spokeswoman Bridget Palmer said.

She notes that the public hearing took many hours during the course of two successive meetings. The board attached 48 conditions to the approvals, such as limiting to four the number of buildings that will exceed the 35-foot height limit.

"The zoning board did its due diligence on this," Palmer says. "They looked at the pros and cons . . . and made a decision they felt was sound."

At a news conference Tuesday, Cahn announced that the township wants to maintain the 155-acre Woodcrest site as either a golf course or open space. He also said he opposes rezoning it for development.

Is there a contradiction, given the Brace Road variances? Not at all, the mayor told me; the two are "totally different."

It's true that Woodcrest is a spectacularly lush piece of ground, especially compared to the modest Brace Road site.

But in both cases, nearby residents want to preserve the character of their neighborhoods.

They don't want change.


Contact Kevin Riordan at 856-779-3845, kriordan@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @inqkriordan. Read the Metro columnists' blog, "Blinq," at www.phillynews.com/blinq.

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