MOUNT HOLLY The township council voted, 3-1, Monday to create a redevelopment zone, after listening to concerns expressed by about a dozen residents and shop owners who worry that their properties may be seized through eminent domain.
The 30-acre zone includes 120 businesses and homes in the central part of the township, not far from Mount Holly Gardens, which was declared an "area in need of redevelopment" more than a decade ago, sparking litigation that headed to the U.S. Supreme Court.
That case, which involved 27 homeowners who claimed discrimination and refused to move despite the threat of eminent domain, was settled late last year. Replacement homes and a buyout package were offered to the mostly Latino and African American homeowners.
Mount Holly officials said the latest redevelopment zone is being established to improve its appearance and to attract new businesses, not to acquire the properties through eminent domain - except for a dozen vacant, dilapidated buildings.
Recently, the owners of 120 properties received certified letters and notices saying they were being included in the zone and inviting them to attend township meetings to ask questions.
Among the 25 who attended was Joe Jones, owner of Lippincott's Supply, a 113-year-old family business that sells masonry stones, bricks, and building supplies on Washington Street near downtown.
He urged the council to pursue redevelopment of the zone, but to do so without assuming the power of eminent domain.
"There's suspicion and unhappiness," Jones said, saying the property owners are upset that the town will have an "unfair" advantage in negotiations if it decides to take their buildings or land. He warned that the town may again face large legal fees if eminent domain was used.
Under state laws governing redevelopment zones, a town council can create a zone without assuming the power of eminent domain, said Jones, a former councilman. He urged the council to take this option to avoid "a draconian mistake."
But Mayor Rich DiFolco said redevelopment is a "positive thing" that will help the town, and added that the township needs the eminent domain power to acquire the run-down buildings. "It's a planning tool," he said.
Karl Konen, owner of Foreign Car Services, said he has owned his business 40 years and is "bothered a lot" by the redevelopment plan. "I work hard, six days a week, sometimes seven," he said. "This isn't right."
He also questioned why part of the downtown, which includes five vacant buildings, is excluded from the zone.
Township officials said the plan is in its infancy and is designed to bring improvements and revitalize the township.
Councilman Dwynne Belton was the sole dissenting vote. He proposed creating the zone but not taking on the power of eminent domain.
"The same emotions that we saw tonight took place . . . when the Gardens project was in its infancy," he said.
Belton said he found it "ironic" that the council was considering another potentially difficult redevelopment project.
Lew Brown and Jason Jones made no comment when they voted in favor of it.