Evesham plaza owners challenge eminent-domain threat

Posted: September 21, 2013

EVESHAM The owners of a semi-vacant shopping plaza in Evesham say they have plans at last for their property - which local officials call an "eyesore" - and want the courts to order the township out of their way.

The New York-based proprietors of Tri-Towne Plaza on Route 70 say that Evesham unfairly included their site in its redevelopment plan this year in order to "punish" the owners, condemn the property, and acquire it below market value.

In filings made last week and in late August, the firm known as Evesham Owner L.L.C. asks Burlington County Superior Court to order their 180,000 square feet of buildings on 20 acres removed from the township's redevelopment plan.

The firm also asks the court to order Evesham's zoning officer and planning board to issue the building permits that the firm says they denied in an act of "unveiled arrogance," and that it says it needs to improve the site and attract new tenants.

"The township is preparing to utilize the awesome power of eminent domain against a property owner not for the purpose of improving a property" but to "punish a property owner," attorney Richard Hoff asserted in his Sept. 13 show-cause order on the owners' behalf.

Judge Ronald E. Bookbinder has scheduled an Oct. 8 date to hear arguments.

In July, following extensive planning board hearings, Evesham Township Council adopted a redevelopment plan that identified Tri-Towne, the vacant Olga's Diner, and the G-Boys Garden & Christmas Center - all on Route 70 - "for redevelopment with eminent domain option," meaning the properties could be condemned and sold to other developers for demolition or renovation.

It also identified 12 other underused sites for possible "rehabilitation," which entails no condemnation.

Properties on both lists are eligible for tax abatements to encourage their improvement.

Built in 1975, Tri-Towne today includes a vacant department store building of 96,000 square feet that originally housed a Kmart and later a Sears; a 35,000-square-foot vacant supermarket; a partially occupied strip mall that includes a steak restaurant, which inked a long-term contract last year; several pad sites; and a parking lot for 850 vehicles.

Ownership and management of the property had been split for years, Hoff said Wednesday, and because Sears was paying its lease faithfully even after vacating the site early in the last decade, there had been little incentive - or legal basis - to bring in a new tenant.

Hoff said his clients, who reconfigured the ownership-management arrangement in December when the Sears lease expired, would "welcome the opportunities afforded through redevelopment if we can get out of the shadow of condemnation."

He said that while zoning officer Nancy Jamanow has said she views eminent domain as a "last resort," Mayor Randy Brown and other members of council have said publicly they would welcome condemnation. "I'm not sure if it's bluster," Hoff said.

Brown declined to comment Wednesday, saying it was a matter of pending litigation.

Township solicitor John Gillespie said he believed that the township had properly included Tri-Towne, Olga's, and G-Boys in its redevelopment plan, and that its identification of them as "blighted" was appropriate under established law.

"Case law has defined blight as a 'deterioration or stagnation that negatively affects surrounding areas,' Gillespie said, "and the planning board determined, based on testimony and evidence, that there was a deterioration or stagnation effect from Tri-Towne."

Contact David O'Reilly at 856-779-3841 or doreilly@philynews.com.

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