Scaled-back Mullica Hill redevelopment zone wins approval

Posted: May 24, 2014

With significant changes and the passage of time, a onetime controversial redevelopment zone in quaint Mullica Hill has quietly gained township approval.

Harrison Township officials established the redevelopment zone - referred to as Block 64 - on Monday, months after a public outcry squashed original plans.

Mayor Louis Manzo said the vote came amid "a little less fanfare" than the township's first attempt - in large part because the 50-acre plan no longer includes properties along North Main Street.

When initial plans over the summer called for the Victorian-style homes and businesses to be grouped in the redevelopment zone, some property owners raised alarms over the town's power to invoke eminent domain. Officials vehemently countered that they had no intentions to use the tool, as residents posted signs in their windows expressing their discontent.

The township committee scrapped the plan by August's end and redirected its planner to begin the process anew, looking solely at three parcels, consisting of open land and a township property.

The passed resolution also categorizes the redevelopment area as a "non-condemnation" zone, meaning eminent domain is not available. Legislation signed last year created that label, although the New Jersey law does permit a municipality later to pursue a typical redevelopment zone, or "condemnation" area, if it is unable to acquire properties necessary for a redevelopment project.

Karen Bigwood, a lead critic of Block 64, said the removal of her neighbors' properties along the street eased fears.

"That seemed to be the major outcry," said Bigwood, who lives on North Main Street. After that, she said, support to block the project dwindled.

But Bigwood said she would continue to watch closely at how redevelopment plans progress.

Manzo said the town had not been approached by a developer yet, adding that officials hope the site will attract a mixed-use project with townhouses and village-style shopping.

Block 64 is among a dozen redevelopment and rehabilitation areas designated in the nearly 20-square-mile township. Manzo said the township expects the 13,000 population to surpass 20,000 as developable land is built out - including a major town center underway in the Richwood section.

The number of such zones in Harrison is probably higher than comparable municipalities in the state, said Michael Cerra, director of government affairs for the New Jersey League of Municipalities.

"It's an issue of scale and size," he said. "In a town like that, I would guess that that's more than average."

But, he added: "It's a primer for the local economy."

Bill Potter, an attorney who represented residents opposing Block 64, said the township appears "promiscuous" in its application of the law.

Potter, who represented the property owner in Gallenthin v. Paulsboro, a landmark state case that established certain criteria for redevelopment, said Harrison's number of zones is likely more typical of a city.

Manzo, however, contended that available land would be purchased and used no matter the designation. The township, he said, wants a say in what is created.

"It's in the forefront of our minds," he said.

Bigwood said that a Citizens Action Committee and website created in the process of fighting the zone has turned a light on other issues in the town; residents and town officials alike have taken to the comments section. That, Bigwood said, is a victory.

Manzo said the township learned to be more clear in its communication with residents.

"In hindsight," he said, "I'm glad that it happened."



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