Open-space group seeks to buy chunk of Bancroft land

A 13-acre section of Bancroft's campus would be sold and turned over to Camden County under a proposal by the New Jersey Conservation Foundation.
A 13-acre section of Bancroft's campus would be sold and turned over to Camden County under a proposal by the New Jersey Conservation Foundation. (LUKE RAFFERTY / Staff Photographer)
Posted: July 27, 2013

A statewide land-preservation group has approached Camden County about getting funds to purchase a large chunk of the Bancroft campus in Haddonfield and turn it over to the county.

Haddonfield Borough Manager Sharon McCullough said the borough commissioners had been notified that the New Jersey Conservation Foundation had applied to the Camden County Open Space Advisory Committee for funding to buy 13 acres of the 19.2-acre property and add them to adjacent county parkland. The 13 acres are on the east side of Hopkins Lane.

County spokesman Dan Keashen said the project was in the "infancy stage" and the county had not started appraisals on the property.

But there does appear to be interest on the part of county officials.

"In terms of open-space preservation, we are always looking at building on things the county already has," Keashen said.

"We stepped forward to facilitate the deal," said Christopher Jage, South Jersey assistant director of the foundation, a decades-old nonprofit that has done land-preservation projects around the state, including South Jersey. Among them are the Franklin Parker Preserve in Burlington County's Pine Barrens and the in-progress Gateway project in Camden.

If the county agrees to provide open-space funding, the project most likely would also require other funding sources, Jage said.

"Bancroft," he added, "seems to be anxious to make this happen."

Bancroft, which serves students with intellectual or developmental disabilities, has been looking to sell its Haddonfield campus since 2005 and build facilities elsewhere.

In January, Haddonfield voters narrowly defeated a $12 million bond question that would have allowed the school district to buy the entire campus. The plan was to use it for an athletic field, recreation, open space, and education. There was also talk about using some of it to create housing.

Supporters saw the purchase as an opportunity for the borough and landlocked district, which is growing in enrollment. Opponents said they felt the purchase price was too high compared with an earlier appraisal.

There were also questions about what would be done with the property and what the costs would be. Some accused backers of trying to push through a pet project regardless of how voters felt.

After the bond proposal was defeated, Bancroft said it would remain at the site and embark on a $50 million modernization project.

Bancroft president Toni Pergolin said this week that she was aware of the new proposal. "At this point, I don't know how interested we are, because it comes down to price," she said.

If the new proposal came to fruition, she said, Bancroft would seek to sell the remaining property and move, as it originally intended to do.

She said Bancroft would still be looking for the $12 million it would have gotten if the referendum question had passed, including the amount it could sell the remaining 6.2 acres for.

After the referendum question was defeated, many in the borough said they believed they had not heard the last of buying Bancroft land with public funds.

"In other words, it's back," said Brian Kelly, founder of Haddonfield United, which helped organize opposition to the bond.

Kelly said he would have to learn more about the proposal but seemed to eye it with caution.

"The [Board of Education] of Haddonfield has a lot of big visions, and big visions take a lot of money," he said. "We're going to have to see."

School Superintendent Richard Perry said he was pleased at the prospect of securing the land as open space for the community - something, he said, the referendum sought to do. The land could be used for the schools' environmental program, he said.

Mayor Jeff Kasko, who had supported the referendum question with reservations, including uncertainty on future expenses, said borough officials heard about the proposal only a few days ago.

"If it works out, it could be something great for Haddonfield. I feel that way," he said, but he added that local officials do not have much information. When they do, he said, a hearing will be convened.


Contact Rita Giordano at 856-779-3893, rgiordano@phillynews.com, or on Twitter @ritagiordano.

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