Camden officials sent a letter this week to 1,300 property owners in a new redevelopment zone, saying they had to keep pace with the latest court ruling on the controversial practice of eminent domain.
But the 26-page letter is so laden in detailed legal terms and foreboding phrases - such as "affect and/or acquire your property against your will" - it is seen by some residents as confirming their fear that the city wants to take all of their homes.
"They're going to come back and get everything," said resident Keith Stewart, 42. "We know they're going to."
In the letter, property owners in the Lanning Square neighborhood are advised to hire an attorney within 45 days to protect their properties - a stark contrast to officials' assertions at public meetings that only three homes would be acquired and subjected to eminent domain.
"This was something they were worried about before, and they were told that they wouldn't have to worry about it," said Benigno Rodriguez, a community leader who has spoken to residents upset about the letter. "They don't have the knowledge to understand the words and the language in the letter. It confuses and distresses a lot of people."
The city, which has faced lawsuits over procedural problems with its redevelopment plans in the past, said it has no interest in taking more homes. Officials say they were abiding by an appellate court ruling in February that called for increased neighborhood notification about possible eminent domain.
"It's basically putting everyone on notice that this is a redevelopment area," said Luis Pastoriza, the city clerk who signed the letter. "I readily admit the legalese might be confusing. But, unfortunately, that's the prescribed language."
The New Jersey Public Advocate, Ronald Chen, disagreed, saying the city did not have to send the letter.
What the letter does, he said, is limit the legal options for residents to sue if their homes are added to the acquisition list at some point over the 25-year plan.
"If they're saying they only want to take three houses, then they really shouldn't care," Chen said. "The [city] is by their actions holding open the possibility that they still might take their property. . . .If they don't intend on taking the properties, withdraw that notice."
On Tuesday, City Council unanimously approved the redevelopment plan, which would bring 480 new and rehabilitated homes to the neighborhood next to Cooper University Hospital and a new health campus and retail strip to Broadway.
The plan brought opposition from some residents who thought the city would increase the acquisition list over the life of the plan and make more homes subject to eminent domain.
With the letter, opponents feel they have been proven correct, and they vow to sue, arguing their neighborhood is not really blighted.
Supporters, however, note the area has the same number of occupied homes as vacant lots.
Regardless, none of the inhabited properties in the redevelopment plan are being purchased by the city.
Fourteen businesses on Broadway are slated to be acquired by the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, and three houses on Clinton Street will be bought by the state for the site of a new elementary school.
For the Clinton Street homeowners, this week's letter was particularly confusing because they knew they were slated to be bought out, yet the letter did not mention financial compensation.
"If they want the property, as long as they give me money for the property, I'm not afraid to move on," said Hilda Vera-Luciano, who has lived in one of the homes for 37 years. "But they don't say anything about buying."
An offer will be made on the property in six to eight months, said Kevin McElroy, spokesman for the state Schools Development Authority, which is buying the property.
Then, the home will be appraised and a sale price negotiated. A relocation payment will also be offered, he said, and construction on the new school will begin in two years.
Constructing the school was not contingent on the redevelopment plan's passage, but in lobbying for community support, the city presented it as a centerpiece of the plan.
The plan was also described as representing a new day in Camden
The project limits the number of acquisitions of private property, which have proved controversial in redevelopment plans in neighborhoods such as Cramer Hill, while incorporating residents' input through a new "human capital plan."
"This was one of the better community and civic engagement redevelopment processes that I think we've had in the city as a whole," said Council Vice President Dana Redd.
Still, the specter of eminent domain hung over all community meetings about Lanning Square.
According to state law, if an owner rejects the city's offer to take a property at a market rate in a redevelopment area, the city can enter into eminent domain proceedings.
Eminent domain allows a judge to rule that a home be acquired against the will of the owner for the purpose of economic development.
This law is controversial, and has led to a litany of lawsuits. That's why the letter was written by the book, the city said.
"These are things that should be sent to a lawyer, not to a property owner," said Vera-Luciano, a great-grandmother who is trying to find an attorney to take her case for free. "By law, they can evict you. By law, that's what they are telling you."
The former elementary school in Lanning Square sat in what is now an overgrown square block with a broken fence across from Vera-Luciano's house. The needles and baggies from the drug users who frequent the lot end up in front of her house, clogging storm drains.
Vera-Luciano has lobbied the government to clean the lot. But nothing has changed, and despite this week's letter, Vera-Luciano might continue to live next to the lot for some time.