When it comes to redeveloping the magnificent site long occupied by Bancroft, a residential special-needs school, Haddonfield always knows what it doesn't want.
"JUST SAY NO," a typical online post urged in 2010, as the borough planning board was considering a retirement-community proposal for the 19-acre Kings Highway property.
Fierce public opposition scuttled that idea, and in 2013, a bitter grassroots battle ended with voters rejecting the Haddonfield Board of Education's $12.5 million proposal to buy the tract for public use.
Bancroft has considered leaving the borough for a decade. The prospect has roiled the comfortable, densely developed Camden County community of 11,600, where the citizenry is rightly known as civic-minded, well-informed, and adept at organizing.
Now Bancroft, founded in 1883, is moving forward with plans for a new campus in Mount Laurel. And the latest redevelopment plan - a Pennsylvania businessman's proposal for an addiction-treatment center on the Haddonfield campus - has rocked the borough to its historically prosperous core.
A rehab for alcoholics and drug addicts? At a gateway to town, on a choice piece of ground adjacent to Haddonfield Memorial High School, two blocks from Tatem Elementary School, and with residential streets nearby?
Haddonfield really doesn't want it.
"Why put it here?" asks Chris Maynes, a businessman and father of eight whose Haddonfield Encouraging Responsible Development (HERD) Facebook page is a focus of anti-rehab efforts.
In an e-mail urging residents to attend the borough commission's regular meeting March 24 (nearly 100 people were in the audience, as was I), Maynes warned of an "unmitigatable negative" impact on such things as public safety and property values.
"Nobody's arguing that addiction treatment isn't a good thing," Maynes, 42, tells me, adding that those seeking help are generally "good people who went down the wrong path."
As a Class of 2007 rehab grad myself, I appreciate such sentiments. I really do.
But while it may be too late for alternatives, I'd rather see the site - much of it a woodsy hillside with views of the Cooper River and Hopkins Pond - preserved for the public as open space once Bancroft departs.
The Mount Laurel planning board gave preliminary approval March 12 to the school's plan for a new campus.
"We hope construction will begin in January 2016 and that the new facility will be ready in the summer of 2017," says Rex Carney, Bancroft's vice president of external affairs.
Asked to comment on an e-mail that circulated last week offering supposed details about the sale - and suggesting it could be blocked - Mayor Jeff Kasko says, "We're trying to verify it, and we'll see."
But the mayor also notes that he doesn't know the terms of the agreement. And the parties involved aren't showing their hands.
"We're keeping the terms of the agreement confidential," Carney says.
Ditto, says developer Brian J. O'Neill, who envisions the Haddonfield facility as one in a regional chain called Recovery Centers of America.
"The reality is, addiction is a disease . . . and I believe I can change the world by providing treatment beds in neighborhoods," O'Neill says by phone from his King of Prussia headquarters.
Communities everywhere "don't want 'these people' in their backyard," O'Neill continues. "But the people they're saying they don't want are already in the neighborhood."
He's right. And let's get real: People undergoing treatment at a rehab are far less likely to endanger public safety than, say, a local alcoholic who's driving around town untreated. Or a teenager breaking into houses to support a heroin habit.
"We're hoping to be open three months after Bancroft moves out," O'Neill says. "Kids are dying of addiction all over the place, and everyone wants the problem to go away."
While I hardly think a well-run treatment facility will rain ruin upon Haddonfield, I'm not convinced a rehab would be permissible under the borough's zoning code.
I also don't think it would be the best use for this unusual, beautiful bluff in the midst of suburban Camden County. It ought to be made available for the public to enjoy, forever.
"We're going to study the [O'Neill] proposal," Kasko says. "We're going to have a fair and open and thorough process. The developer is going to have lots of time and opportunities to explain [the project], and residents are going to have lots of time to ask questions."
One question I'd like to ask: As it wrestles, once again, with the future of the Bancroft site, can Haddonfield find something to say other than "no"?