A new 'zone' proposal has some in Mount Holly worried

Posted: April 14, 2014

MOUNT HOLLY The memory of bulldozers ripping apart rowhouses and menacing the holdouts in a neighborhood that was deemed blighted a decade ago now colors the debate over plans to declare another large area "in need of redevelopment."

The owners of 120 properties in a 30-acre section that borders the Mount Holly Gardens neighborhood recently received certified letters and notices that labeled most of their homes and shops dilapidated, substandard, obsolete, or outdated. The properties would be included in a new redevelopment zone. The township council would have power to seize them through eminent domain, if needed, to improve the town's appearance and attract new business.

The letters stirred a torrent of angst.

"Oh, yeah, I was worried," said Linda Ford. "I talked to my husband, and we prayed."

Ford lives with her husband, Rick, and son, Michael, in half of a duplex next to the vacant, ramshackle Buzz's Tavern, once a hangout for locals and patrons who work at the nearby seven-story Burlington County courthouse. Ford, 59, a church office administrator, said the couple had invested more than $20,000 in their "humble home" of 20 years, installing a new roof, windows, plumbing, and a second bathroom.

At a planning board meeting last week, packed with 30 nervous residents, she got the questions rolling. "How and when am I going to know if and when you're going to tear down my house?" she asked.

Mayor Rich DiFolco, who sits on the board, shook his head. "We're not looking to tear down properties" that are maintained, he said. The plan is to raze only the dozen or so vacant, rundown buildings in the zone and to spruce up the rest of the area to entice new businesses, he said.

The zone is an irregularly shaped plot that encompasses seven streets in the central portion of town that includes a pizzeria, a bustling building-supply operation on an adjoining street, a shuttered Caribbean cafe that had opened in a railroad car, and aging houses. Most of the buildings are in the historic district.

Board chairman Brian Grant, who is running for a seat on council, promised the crowd that he would never support using eminent domain against "people who care for their properties." He said the redevelopment zone designation would let the town obtain state grants and loans to make improvements.

Joe Jones, the fourth-generation owner of Lippincott's Supply, a 113-year-old family business that sells masonry stones, bricks, and building supplies on Washington Street, applauds the effort. But he objects to the eminent domain provision, saying it "hangs over my head and over the head of everyone else" in the redevelopment zone.

Under state laws governing redevelopment zones, a town council can create a zone without assuming the power of eminent domain, said Jones, a former councilman.

Town officials should work with businesses and homeowners for the greater good, Jones said at the meeting. The township should not bring "a Sherman tank" to the negotiation table if it wants to take someone's property to clean up a neighborhood, he said, to loud applause.

But Grant said eminent domain was necessary in cases where absentee owners of empty, deteriorating buildings refuse to come to the table. "I don't want to handcuff the town," he said.

Robert McCann, another property owner affected by the redevelopment, questions this reasoning. "The township can still condemn vacant buildings. If they are unsafe or an eyesore, they can take action," he said. "The problem is they have not done this."

The planning board's role was to listen to the residents and make a recommendation to the town council, which is scheduled to hold a final vote on the creation of the redevelopment zone Monday. The board voted unanimously in favor of the redevelopment zone.

McCann owns Specialties Electronics, a medical-equipment manufacturing business that would be within the zone. When the board held its first hearing on the issue, weeks ago, he objected to the redevelopment report because it had labeled his 20-year-old building "substandard" and "obsolete."

"This would make it hard to sell my property," McCann said, arguing that it is in good shape and that he hopes to sell it when he retires in a few years. After he showed photographs of the building to town officials, they agreed to change the description and that of several other properties.

But McCann is concerned because his property would still be in the designated zone. "They're talking about having developers come in. . . . It's so easy for this township to use eminent domain, like they did in the Gardens," he said.

When the town council declared the Gardens "an area in need of redevelopment," citing rampant crime and deteriorating rowhouses, it announced plans to raze the neighborhood, which was occupied mostly by impoverished minorities. Market-rate housing would then be built.

Many moved, accepting payments of about $30,000 from the township, barely enough to find a new home. Facing the threat of eminent domain, the 27 who refused to leave sued in state and federal courts, alleging discrimination.

The case was settled when the town offered larger buyouts and replacement homes in the new development for those who wanted to stay.

DiFolco says the intent is different this time. The purpose of the new redevelopment zone, he said, is to improve its appearance.

Ford says she is no longer anxious that her home may be in the new zone. "I had a good feeling after I left the planning board meeting," she said. "I felt they were sincere, that they really want to develop Mount Holly and not take people's homes away."

Besides, Ford welcomes the town's "doing something" about the boarded-up bar that has been vacant for years, right next to her tidy house with the lacy white curtains.


jhefler@phillynews.com

856-779-3224 @JanHefler

www.inquirer.com/burlcobuzz

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