The Harrison Township Committee rescinded a resolution Monday to designate parts of Main Street in Mullica Hill as an area in need of redevelopment, in response to fierce public backlash over fears of eminent domain.
The vote came 11 days after a citizens committee formed to block the proposal circulated letters warning property owners of a government "land grab."
Mayor Louis Manzo said the township had planned to use the designation only to benefit property owners. The township expects that 51 acres of privately owned farmland behind Main Street will be developed in the next couple of years.
It extended that designation to the properties, Manzo said, to make them more attractive to prospective buyers if the current owners decide to sell.
The committee then passed a resolution authorizing the Joint Land Use Board to investigate whether the farmland and a piece of township property would qualify for the designation.
"The thought that we would bulldoze the historic district is absurd, ridiculous - pick any word in that realm," Manzo told at least 100 residents at the municipal building Monday night.
As frustration boiled over, Manzo told residents they could "strike me dead" if they could prove he was lying. "Take my children. That's right. It's absurd. I'm embarrassed for you."
Near the end of the mayor's speech, a resident blurted out, to applause: "The fluff speech is enough!"
The proposal dated to February, when the township commissioned a planner to investigate whether the 23 lots, which include small businesses and Victorian homes, would qualify as an area in need of redevelopment.
State law requires that such areas meet certain criteria, such as lack of proper utilization or discontinuance of use. The planning firm concluded in the spring that the lots qualified for the redevelopment designation because of "deterioration" and the possibility of "smart growth," among other things.