Redevelopment proposal roils Mullica Hill

Posted: August 11, 2013

A Harrison Township proposal to designate part of Main Street in Mullica Hill as an area in need of redevelopment has residents and business owners up in arms over fears of eminent domain, even as the mayor insists that the designation would only strengthen their position on the market.

The township expects that about 60 acres of farmland behind Main Street will be developed in the next couple of years. With that in mind, the planning board extended the redevelopment designation to the properties to make them more attractive to prospective buyers, should the current owners decide they want to sell sometime in the future.

Mayor Louis Manzo says the township won't touch the properties.

"We will not use eminent domain here," Manzo said Friday, adding that the township could not invoke that authority in this case, since the law requires such land to be purchased for public use. "We won't do it."

In Mullica Hill, some aren't buying it. On Thursday, residents and business owners formed the Citizens Action Committee of Mullica Hill to protect the 23 lots - which include Victorian homes in the historic district, small businesses, and a synagogue - from a government "land grab."

Under the state's Local Redevelopment and Housing Law, properties must meet certain criteria before they are designated for redevelopment, such as dilapidation, lack of proper utilization, or discontinuance of use. In the spring, a planning firm commissioned to study the area determined that it qualified for the redevelopment designation because of "deterioration" and "obsolete layout and design," among other things.

"We are not a blighted area. It's a complete misuse of the word to designate our area," said committee member Joan Halter, 51, who runs an accounting firm on North Main Street. "If they determined they need my particular area, it could potentially put me out of business. And with that, 10 employees."

The land spat burst into public view this week, as property owners consulted high-profile legal teams that have fought eminent domain in the highest courts at both the state and federal levels.

Christina Walsh, director of Activism and Coalitions for the Virginia-based Institute for Justice, warned the township committee in a letter Thursday that approving the redevelopment designation would send a message to property owners "that their investments are not safe."

"You are also sending the same message to businesses contemplating moving into Harrison Township," wrote Walsh, whose organization represented the plaintiff in the controversial 2005 U.S. Supreme Court case Kelo v. City of New London. The court ruled that economic development qualified as a "public use" under the Fifth Amendment, prompting widespread public backlash.

The mayor says the dispute is just a big misunderstanding. When residents expressed concerns at the Joint Land Use Board's June 6 meeting, the board tabled a measure to recommend the proposal to the township committee. But by its July 18 meeting, no one had raised additional concerns, Manzo said, so the board passed the resolution.

The Township Committee is set to vote on it Aug. 19.

The township regularly uses the redevelopment designation as a tool to engage private developers, Manzo said. In this case, he said, the farmland sits in a "key spot" near the Route 322 Bypass.

"Once development starts again, this will be a desirable place for someone to build," he said.

"We certainly respect these individuals on Main Street and the questions that they have," he said. "We look forward to addressing them at our next meeting."

Contact Andrew Seidman at 856-779-3846, or @AndrewSeidman on Twitter.

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