Some in Haddonfield fear 'they're taking away our town'

Posted: June 04, 2014

The signs may have started in Haddonfield's stately Gill Tract section, but they soon struck a chord of concern well beyond these well-kept lawns. They have sprouted up on housing lots large and small all around town.

They exhort residents to "Show up, Speak up" at Tuesday evening's planning board meeting and "Say no to 605 Warwick Development."

A local developer is seeking to subdivide the one-acre-plus property into three lots with three houses, including most of the large stone house that sits on the land.

High on the neighbors' list of concerns is that the redevelopment will be out of scale with their neighborhood, eroding its character and, they claim, running counter to the town's Master Plan.

Sharing those concerns and rallying to the Gill Tracters' cause have been residents in areas more modest - relatively speaking. This after all is Haddonfield.

Homeowners in those sections complain about big houses being built where ranchers, bungalows, and mature trees once stood. They, too, say they worry about the borough's character.

"They're taking away our town," said Ann Tarbell, a member of the Haddonfield Neighborhoods Association, who lives across town from the contested Warwick Road development and who supports its opponents' efforts. "They're changing the whole complexion of Haddonfield, which is a quaint town, an old town, and we're objecting very strongly."

There are other issues as well - flooding, the impact on an already-stressed infrastructure, reduced housing diversity and open space, and loss of mature trees in a town that prizes them.

Central to the controversy is the practice of teardowns - completely or partially knocking down a building to make way for something new. A redevelopment tool, it tends to be practiced in communities that are largely or wholly built-up.

Back in 2001, John Reisner, in his successful bid for borough commissioner, made the demolitions and redevelopment a campaign issue. As a planning board member, too, he said he had worked for curbing redevelopment that was out of scale with existing housing in a given community.

Reisner, who no longer holds either office, said the practice has reemerged.

"We were not as successful as we hoped we would be," Reisner said recently. "It is happening."

Some residents, including Brian Kelly, founder of the grassroots Haddonfield United group, have been critical of some approvals and variances by the town's boards.

Borough Commissioner John Moscatelli said the commissioners had asked the planning and zoning boards to plug "loopholes" in the existing codes that developers might exploit.

In the meantime, neighborhood opponents of the proposed Warwick Road development have rallied, hiring a lawyer to represent them.

"You're taking a large parcel, and you're going to put three houses on it," said Jon Simonson, one of the opponents. "It's going to be out of sync with the rest of the neighborhood."

Fearing "McMansions," Simonson said that the neighbors would like to see the property stay the same, but that they could probably accept two custom-designed houses on the property.

Their attorney, Salvatore Siciliano, said he intended to argue that one of the lots, because of its irregular shape, would not meet town building requirements, such as for setbacks.

"The larger argument," he said, "is it's going to change the character of the area, and that violates the Master Plan."

Donald Cofsky, attorney for developer Mark DeFeo, disagreed on all counts.

"I see people who are sitting on postage-stamp-size lots with a sign on their lawn," said Cofsky, noting the anti-project signs are far from Warwick Road. "Have they bothered to read the ordinance and what's permitted?"

Cofsky said that the plans for the property would meet all legal requirements and that the development was comparable in scale to neighborhood averages for lot size. He said his client planned to use a top local architect.

In addition, he said, DeFeo has already extended the residents a compromise, scaling the project back from four lots and keeping a portion of the existing house.

"It would be a heck of a lot easier to knock down the house," Cofsky said.

DeFeo did not respond to a call for comment.

Elsewhere in town, where houses and lots tend to be smaller, residents say they are seeing the same teardown phenomenon, but with the opposite impact.

"Moderately priced houses are disappearing," said Maryanne Shay, an activist with the Haddonfield Neighborhoods Association.

In recent years in her part of town, Shay said, she has seen smaller homes knocked down and replaced by larger, much-more-costly homes.

"It's absolutely maximizing profits for the developers," said Haddonfield United's Kelly.

The notion that there is a market for the homes hasn't swayed him.

"Their big argument is, 'Well, this is what people want,' " Kelly said. "What about the people who already live in the town?"



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