Mullica Hill scales back redevelopment area after public outcry

Mullica Hill – a sleepy southern New Jersey town known for its wealth
 of antique stores – is split down the middle, literally and 
figuratively.

On a map, the town is divided from north to south by Main Street,
 which is home to dozens of boutiques and century-old houses.

But over the last few weeks, the other divide became apparent. A plan
 to designate a large swath of land for redevelopment has created 
deep suspicion by some residents that the town could use eminent
 domain to help developers get their way.

Most of the 50 acres of land at issue are open space, but some plots 
include homes and small businesses on the north end of Mullica Hill’s
 Main Street, Route 322, and Woodland Avenue. The entire area is known
 as Block 64.

After a heated public meeting, the Mullica Hill township committee
 voted 5-0 to take those properties out of the proposed redevelopment
 plan. It was a win for many homeowners who have been campaigning for 
months against the designation. But both sides are still simmering 
from the dispute, and there’s a lingering sense that Block 64 – and 
the rest of historic Mullica Hill – may still be in danger.

 

How this all got started

Earlier this year, officials from Harrison Township, which includes
 historic Mullica Hill, started discussing whether Block 64 could
 qualify as “blighted,” which would allow them to label it a 
”redevelopment area.”

“We cannot control the fact that Harrison Township will continue to be 
developed,” said Harrison Township mayor Louis Manzo. “What we’re
 trying to do is shape what that development looks like.” In his six
 years as mayor, Manzo has spearheaded a handful of other redevelopment
 projects and become a bullish advocate for the redevelopment 
designation.

He says it gives the township more power to set up tax deferral
 programs and leverage developers to make upgrades to the town’s 
infrastructure on the developer’s dollar. For private residents 
living in a “redevelopment area,” Manzo claims the designation makes 
it easier for them to negotiate with developers over selling or using
 their land. Officials also believe it will boost property values,
 since the designation implies the surrounding area is improving.

Block 64 includes more than 24 separately-owned plots of land. Lots 2 
and 21, which are set back from the road and make up nearly 900,000 
square feet of potential commercial space, are the only two that have
 peaked the interest of developers. The rest are a mix of private
 homes, small businesses and open land.

Karen Bigwood, whose home falls within Block 64, said she was left out 
of the process. “Nobody’s asked us what we want.” She says members of 
the Joint Land Use Board quietly began studying whether Block 64 could
 be called “blighted” under the noses of residents (though the township
 committee says it notified residents of the study beforehand). For
 her, that was a red flag, and she began looking into how “blighted”
 properties and “redevelopment areas” had impacted other towns in the
 past.

Bigwood even spoke with Mayor Manzo about the plan in a lengthy
 telephone call, but still felt excluded from the lawmakers’ decision 
to move forward with the proposal. When it became clear the township 
committee favored the idea, more residents began voicing their
 concerns about designating the land in Block 64 a “redevelopment
 area.”

“We have paid our taxes, paid our mortgage payments, maintained our 
homes,” Bigwood said, “and it’s like we’re not even a consideration.”

 

Saving Mullica Hill’s historic feel

It’s not the first time residents of Mullica Hill have resisted what 
they perceived as unwelcome changes to the town.

Kathy Dodson moved her family to Mullica Hill in the 1980s and quickly 
became one of the town’s biggest defenders. “It was like out of time,”
 she said about seeing Mullica Hill for the first time. “The kids would 
catch bugs in jars. I just thought it was like small-town U.S.A.”

But as development rose up around her, Dodson worried the town’s
 historic heritage might be overwhelmed by development projects 
creeping into the area. “We needed to have a protection from people
 coming in to tell us what to do with our town,” she said.

Dodson got her wish in 1991, when Mullica Hill landed spots on the
 National Register of Historic Places and the New Jersey State Register 
of Historic Places. “All these buildings, they have an influence on
 people.”

It’s perhaps that influence that motivated a group of residents led by
 Bigwood to start the Citizens Action Committee of Mullica Hill earlier 
this summer in response to the township’s proposal to re-designate
 Block 64. Once a strong contingent of supporters had joined the group,
 they peppered the town with flyers and posters warning residents about
 what redevelopment designations had led to in other towns across the
 country: eminent domain. “The town was in an uproar,” Bigwood said.

Locals and even people outside Mullica Hill began flooding the 
township committee with calls. Lawn signs began appearing up and down
 Main Street claiming “eminent domain abuse” and “keep your hands off
 my business.”Manzo was caught off guard by the opposition, and says he started 
fielding questions that quickly turned into rumors. “I got a call from
 one woman asking why I was going to bulldoze half the historic
 district,” he said. The controversy spun off so quickly that Manzo 
questioned whether it had been worth it, but added, “trust me, if it
 were my property, I’d want to be in the zone.”

Joseph Pacera, chairman of the Harrison Township Joint Land Use Board
 and a local real estate developer, said the wave of criticism stemmed 
from confusion about the township’s intent. “It’s to give added
 benefits to these residents if they want to participate in the 
redevelopment,” he said. With negotiations already underway to build
 on lots 2 and 21, Pacera says residents would be better suited to deal
 directly with developers if their homes were in the designated 
”redevelopment area.”

He acknowledged that the redevelopment designation does give the 
township more leeway to invoke eminent domain – “If we wanted the
 developer to install a sidewalk on Woodland Road and needed an extra 
six inches, would that be appropriate?” – but added that officials 
would not take over privately-owned homes in Block 64 to clear the way 
for developers. Echoing statements Manzo also made publicly, Pacera
 said, “the last thing we want to do is change the character of our 
town.”

But some residents worried about more than eminent domain. Joan
 Halter, whose accounting firm sits in Block 64, says the designation
 would decrease the property value of her office. “Now your property is
 located in an area designated as ‘blighted’, so a buyer couldn’t get a
 mortgage and you couldn’t refinance, unless it was at a much lower 
rate,” she said.

If eminent domain didn’t enter the realm of possibility for some, the 
prospect of sinking property values had them fighting just as hard
 against turning Block 64 into a “redevelopment area.”

 

Decision time

When the proposal finally came up for a vote at the township committee 
meeting on Monday night, dozens of people filled the room, leaving 
many standing in the aisles. Manzo, one of the five committee members, 
called it “a record” for attendance.

From the start, tempers on both sides were high. During the mayor’s 
testimony, a man in the audience started yelling that Manzo’s speech
 was all “fluff” and had to be calmed down by a police officer. Later 
the lawyer for the residents, William Potter, told the township
 committee during the public comment section that their plan was
”unconstitutional” and was shouted down by officials. Views of other
 audience members ranged from “you don’t live there” to “am I the only
one who thinks this is a good idea?”

But when the township’s planner testified that lots 2 and 21 could 
work just as well as a “redevelopment area” if all the other lots were 
removed from the plan, Committeeman Don Heim said “take ’em out.” The 
four other members voted in favor of Heim’s motion in a matter of 
seconds.

Residents who had been fighting for months against designating their
 homes “blighted” and “in need of redevelopment” had scored their
 biggest victory yet … sort of.

Halter, whose property borders lots 21, says having a “redevelopment
 area” adjacent to her backyard will put a strain on the value of her
 office. “I’m still concerned that my property will be next to a 
’blighted’ property,” she said.

For Bigwood, who organized the effort against the Block 64 proposal, 
the fight put her on notice. “It was a wake up call for us,” she said. 
The unlikely activist, who prefers baking cookies to planting street
 signs, says the opposition effort was successful, but that the whole 
episode has made many residents of the neighborly town uneasy. “We 
made some noise,” she said, “but we’ll continue to keep our eye on
 Block 64.”

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