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.”
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.”