Potential solution in Woodcrest golf course dispute

Posted: May 18, 2014

Cherry Hill officials say a planning tool often used to save farmland from development may help in their efforts to preserve the Woodcrest Country Club golf course from being used for housing.

The owners of the club are mulling an option to sell their development rights at the 150-acre site to the township, Camden County, and the state, Freeholder Jeffrey L. Nash said this week.

Nash said the club's owner - First Montgomery Group of Marlton, a real estate company controlled by the Haydinger family - was receptive to the idea, and that the county has the state-approved appraisers who had done the appraisal last year now determining the value of development rights on the land.

Because the site is eligible for state Green Acres funding, any agreement to transfer development rights has to follow state protocol, said Jack Sworaski, director for the county's Division of Open Space and Farmland Preservation.

"We've been in touch with the owners of the property, and they're aware we are doing this with the appraisals," he said Friday. "If we are able to agree on a price, we would look to use Green Acres funding for a portion of the acquisition."

Nash said once the appraisals determine the value of the development rights, the county will decide whether to negotiate.

The potential solution, Nash said, emerged from an April 8 community meeting, at which the county broached the possibility of buying the development rights as a way to prevent a proposed housing development that has aroused the ire of neighbors.

"This is very preliminary and exploratory, but a good sign nonetheless," said Nash, who lives nearby in the Woodcrest section of the township and is a member of the 30-member Woodcrest Organizing Committee, which hosted the April 8 meeting and has taken an active role in opposing the project.

The proposed development would bring an 844-unit complex, including 169 low- and moderate-income units under court-ordered Council on Affordable Housing requirements.

Under COAH mandates, if a builder wants to build apartments in municipalities that have not fulfilled their affordable housing obligation, 15 percent of the units have to be affordable in a rental complex and 20 percent in an owner-occupied complex.

However, if the development rights were transferred to Cherry Hill, Camden County, and the state, the property would be deed-restricted against future development, and the owners could continue to operate it as a golf course.

"Obviously, it was a very favorable discussion," Nash said. "The community wants a successful country club, and would encourage people to join if they feel the owners have done a good job of maintaining it and have agreed not to develop it."

Founded in 1929, Woodcrest Country Club is a private 18-hole course. It was a haven for Jewish members for many years.

"It has significant historic value and it would be a tragedy to rip it up for housing," Nash said.

The club is part of the Camden County Greenway and the Cooper River flows through it. Nash said that there is "an absolute traffic nightmare on the corner of Haddonfield-Berlin and Evesham Roads" already without further development.

Michael Haydinger, a principal and vice president of First Montgomery, did not return calls for comment.

Cherry Hill Land Associates L.L.C., a subsidiary of First Montgomery, acquired Woodcrest for $10.1 million in a bankruptcy auction on May 20, 2013. It reopened it a month later as a semiprivate course offering both memberships and public tee times.

Following the auction, two lawsuits were filed, one by First Montgomery over whether the site's sewer infrastructure could support new development, and the other seeking court permission to build housing, for which the area is not zoned. The latter suit was filed by the Fair Share Housing Center. Both cases remain in litigation.

Nash said the April 8 community meeting attracted over 300 residents, triple what was expected.

"There are a lot of people very concerned," he said. "Whatever happens at Woodcrest Country Club would impact not only Cherry Hill, but surrounding communities" such as Voorhees.

"I assured those in attendance that Voorhees supported the site being preserved as open space," said Voorhees Mayor Mike Mignogna in an e-mail Wednesday. He was one of several mayors who attended the meeting in a show of unity against housing development.

"Any residential development there would have a negative impact on the quality of life of residents of both Cherry Hill and Voorhees," Mignogna said.

In a similar case, a Superior Court judge in February upheld the Cherry Hill zoning board's approval of a 152-unit apartment complex at a site most recently occupied by a building materials supplier. In that case, the proposed project also had to meet COAH obligations.

Bridget Palmer, spokeswoman for Cherry Hill Mayor Chuck Cahn, said the township wants to preserve Woodcrest as open space. She said the township's affordable housing obligation was already being met.

"Our position will not change," she said. "Mayor Cahn and the members of township council stand firmly opposed to any residential development on the Woodcrest site, and will continue to advocate for the preservation of this environmentally sensitive and historically significant property."

There might be a hurdle in arranging Green Acres funding.

Asked about Camden County's potential offer, Martha Sapp, an administrator of the Green Acres program for the Department of Environmental Protection, said: "It's our policy not to allow Green Acres funding to be used to thwart the mission of another state agency, so we ask questions about the land we are funding, such as whether or not a site is designated for affordable housing. If it is, we have to work toward resolving that before we use Green Acres funding to acquire it."

sparmley@phillynews.com856-779-3928 @SuzParmley

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