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Judge backs freeholders on road deal

Did the Camden County freeholders buy Marlkress Road from Cherry Hill for $1.7 million because they needed an alternate emergency evacuation route?

Did the Camden County freeholders buy Marlkress Road from Cherry Hill for $1.7 million because they needed an alternate emergency evacuation route?

Or did they purchase the road - as a county resident's lawsuit contends - to help fellow Democrats in Cherry Hill close a $2 million budget deficit in 2006?

Superior Court Judge Francis J. Orlando Jr. said yesterday it doesn't matter - from a legal standpoint. No laws were broken, so he dismissed a suit by Camden activist Frank Fulbrook seeking to nullify the sale.

"The evidence before the court is that the county has a right to buy the road," Orlando said as he summed up the case. "Cherry Hill can sell it, and there's no challenge to the price paid. . . . The best remedy is not at court but at the polls."

Fulbrook said county taxpayers - especially those in poorer communities such as Camden - shouldn't be forced to bail out Cherry Hill. So he filed the suit in 2006 and represented himself in the court challenge.

"I'm very disappointed," Fulbrook said after the judge's ruling.

"If you are a taxpayer in Cherry Hill, you benefit from this. But I call it 'Robin Hood in reverse': robbing from the poor to give to the rich."

The county purchased Marlkress Road - running 1.48 miles between Route 70 and Kresson Road - in 2006 for $1.7 million, citing its importance as a disaster evacuation route.

It also bought two parcels - along the New Jersey Turnpike behind the township public works building and the armory site at 7 Park Dr. - for $300,000, saying they were needed for modernization of the county's 911 system.

Fulbrook did not contest the acquisition of the two parcels but told Orlando yesterday the purchase of the two-lane road for an evacuation route was "ridiculous on its face . . . an absurd argument."

"Do you agree that the county has the right to buy the road?" Orlando asked Fulbrook.

"The counties generally have the power to buy roads," Fulbrook said. "When there's a willful act of fraud, there's a question."

He pointed out that the road had originally been owned by Camden County and was sold to Cherry Hill in 1981 for a nominal $1. The township wanted to take over the road at the time to keep the speed limit down and prevent its widening.

The county then purchased the road and the two land parcels in 2006 for $2 million - the same amount needed to close Cherry Hill's budget shortfall.

Fulbrook said the township's sale of the road at such a profit is "obscene." He also said the county doesn't have to own a road to use it as an emergency route.

"There's no evidence before me that the amount paid to Cherry Hill is skewed," Orlando told Fulbrook. "The $1.7 million paid to the township [for the road] is not an issue. . . . You haven't shown this was done solely to close the budget gap."

What's more, the judge said, a county emergency manager official - in a statement - supported the purchase.

"Even if the reason was to plug the budget gap, I don't see anything illegal," said Orlando, who suggested residents' "concerns be expressed in the ballot box."

Assistant Camden County Counsel Howard Goldberg told Orlando the freeholders "make decisions that benefit every municipality all the time," whether it's "a decision to help the poor in Camden or schools in Mount Ephraim."

After about an hour and a half of arguments, Orlando granted the township's motion for summary judgment and dismissed the case.