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Mount Holly residents see agenda in redevelopment zone

MOUNT HOLLY On paper, the map of Mount Holly's latest redevelopment zone resembles a squiggling salamander. But to many of the affected homeowners and business proprietors, the map appears to be a battle plan that targets their land.

MOUNT HOLLY On paper, the map of Mount Holly's latest redevelopment zone resembles a squiggling salamander.

But to many of the affected homeowners and business proprietors, the map appears to be a battle plan that targets their land.

Left alone for decades to carve out a living in this hardscrabble Burlington County town, 119 property owners are now subject to eminent domain if their buildings interfere with the Mount Holly council's vision and sense of aesthetics.

"This hits home," Karl Konen, owner of Foreign Car Services, said at a recent meeting, his voice trembling. "I purchased my property when I was 23 years old. I'm in my 60s, and I think I can do this a few more years."

Konen's property is near downtown Mount Holly, on Washington Street, an area town officials would like to see occupied by trendy retail shops and eateries.

"We would like to see mixed-use, with retail on the first floor and residential on the second floor," Mayor Rich DiFolco, an architect of the 30-acre zone, said in an interview.

"We saw the possibilities of what we can do there and talked to potential developers," he said while declining to name them. DiFolco said they were casual discussions and no plans had yet been made. The redevelopment could take a couple of years, or even a decade, he said.

Situated in the town's midsection, the zone zigs and zags and includes an array of industries, mom-and-pop shops, parking lots, insurance agencies, duplexes, and rowhouses. Among the notable properties are a bustling business that sells masonry bricks and decorative stones, a freshly painted luncheonette, a pizzeria that has been open for 31 years, a fire hall that now hosts jazz and gospel concerts, and a historic red barn that houses a law office and a giant antiques outlet.

DiFolco said the redevelopment plan was in its infancy and promised that the Town Council would use its newly acquired power of eminent domain to raze only the dozen vacant and dilapidated buildings within the new zone.

Then why, the property owners asked at meetings and in interviews, did they all get certified letters saying the town could now take their buildings for the greater good? And why does the zone exclude most of downtown, which has six vacancies, and an adjoining street with five empty storefronts?

Several property owners also questioned why the town's planner, CME Associates, labeled most of their buildings "dilapidated," "substandard," and "obsolete" even though many are well-maintained.

"A lot of politicians are playing games . . . They're talking about having developers come in. It's for the developers, not the betterment of the town," said Robert McCann, who manufactures medical electronic equipment in a 20-year-old shop that CME Associates labeled substandard.

After McCann took a photograph of his tidy brick shop to a council meeting and complained, the designation was removed.

The controversy rocking the town of 11,000 is not unlike the turmoil that frequently occurs when municipalities create redevelopment zones, according to the Institute of Justice, an Arlington, Va., nonprofit legal service that challenges eminent domain actions nationwide. A representative recently visited Mount Holly and warned property owners the redevelopment zone could set the stage for a land grab by the government.

"I went door to door," said Christine Walsh, a director with the institute. "Typically, city councils target prime real estate . . .. Then they bring in a private builder and a developer. Property owners shouldn't be punished because of the location of their homes and businesses."

Walsh said she was particularly concerned because of the town's history with the Mount Holly Gardens neighborhood.

Late last year, the town settled with 27 Gardens homeowners after it threatened to use eminent domain to move them out so market-rate housing could be built. The mostly low-income Latino and African American residents sued, claiming discrimination. The case was settled weeks before the U.S. Supreme Court was scheduled to hear it.

While the case was being litigated, members of the Institute of Justice erected billboards in town defending the Gardens homeowners' property rights, attended meetings, and later filed a brief with the high court supporting the homeowners.

DiFolco said he recently received a letter from the institute asking him and other town officials to reconsider creating the redevelopment zone. But he said the council's goal was to clean up decaying buildings and to create a walkable downtown that would attract people and businesses.

"This is actually a positive thing," he said. "We have no interest in taking over any resident's property."

Three similar redevelopment studies were undertaken in the last decade, he said, but were abandoned because the town was embroiled in the Mount Holly Gardens case. Now that the case is settled, he said, the town should look to the future.

But after several heated meetings, council agreed to change the descriptions of more than 30 properties in the new redevelopment zone to reflect they were not dilapidated or substandard but only "obsolete," based on current planning standards.

"There are homes in the historic zones that would be called obsolete" because of their age, said Brian Grant, chairman of the Planning Board. He said the designation would not diminish the value of the properties and "won't go on the deed or your 'For Sale' sign."

Some of those affected by the redevelopment report are not convinced.

Bob Shinn, a former county freeholder and New Jersey commissioner of the state Department of Environmental Protection, said a historic building he owns on Trinity Lane had been maintained and upgraded in accordance with the standards set by the town Historical Commission.

Yet his property and two nearby buildings were deemed "dilapidated" and "obsolete structures" by the planner, he said.

"That's not meant to say your building is substandard," DiFolco told him at a meeting last week.

"The normal definition of dilapidated is that it should be torn down," Shinn shot back. "These properties are in fine condition. . . . This needs to be rectified."