Last fall, Evesham residents began hearing rumblings about tax abatements and a new redevelopment zone in downtown Marlton.
Included in the zone was a commercial property owned by township Mayor Randy Brown, and when a sign announced it was "Under agreement," residents began inquiring about it.
Answers were difficult to get.
When the redevelopment plan and a proposed apartment project came up for a vote at a Dec. 16 council meeting, Brown "recused himself and stepped off the dais," the minutes of that meeting note.
When resident Rosemary Bernardi asked why he was abstaining, his reply was gruff: "Because I abstained."
When she pressed him, Brown repeated: "I abstained. I abstained."
Last week - with suspicions among residents about the project and his ties to it heightened by months of his refusal to discuss the matter - the mayor disclosed that he actually took a loss on the sale of his property to the developer.
In an e-mail to The Inquirer on Friday, he said he bought the property at 22 South Maple for $400,000 in 2008 - the year he became mayor - and sold it on Feb. 11 for $350,000 to Marlton South L.L.C.
"Neither myself, family members, council members have any interest in Marlton L.L.C.," he added.
The disclosure is unlikely to douse all concerns among residents.
"It's not a loss because it wasn't worth anywhere near that," resident Joe Barbagiovanni said when informed of the sale price. "Those properties aren't selling. He's trying to make people think he's not gaining anything from this, but if you have a vacant building you can't sell, and if you use it as your business for several years, you haven't lost any money.
"He profited because it was a vacant building he wasn't able to sell."
At the council meeting March 17, Barbagiovanni insisted on asking about the project.
"Why don't you just let us speak on it? We should have a chance to speak on it before you vote," he said as the township solicitor sought to cut off questions.
That day, Brown again left the dais, standing behind the town planner as council voted in favor of the developer's plan to build apartments on Brown's and adjacent properties.
The council also granted the developer a tax abatement.
When residents asked for the sale price and date, Brown remained silent.
Solicitor John Gillespie said he did not know the price. The township manager and deputy mayor said afterward that they, too, were "not privy" to the information.
Resident Joe Scialabbo said it appeared the project was being fast-tracked while vacant buildings and eyesores elsewhere in town were not being addressed.
"If the mayor didn't own that property would it be up for redevelopment?" he asked.
Others asked why apartments were being permitted in a commercial zone and why a tax abatement was granted.
In his e-mail last week, Brown did not respond to questions residents raised about possible favoritism toward him.
Brown had used the property for his business, the United Title & Abstract Agency. He said he now works out of his home.
Mitchell Davis, a South Jersey developer who built the Promenade on Route 73 and is a principal in Marlton South L.L.C., revealed the scope of the Evesham project for the first time at this month's meeting.
He said he planned to build a four-story apartment complex on four parcels, including the one Brown formerly owned. The complex would have 55 market-rate units.
The tidy, two-story yellow house with green shutters that housed Brown's office is to be demolished along with another office building. The other two parcels are vacant.
The area is near Maple Avenue's traffic-choked intersection with Route 73 in the Marlton section.
Town Manager Tom Czerniecki said in an interview Davis asked him last fall whether the area could be designated a redevelopment/rehabilitation zone and whether he could get a tax abatement to develop it.
Under Davis' agreement with the township, he will not have to pay taxes the first year and then will pay gradually increasing amounts until the sixth year, when he will have to pay his full tax obligation, Czerniecki said.
Czerniecki said Davis' project had the potential to stimulate growth downtown and deliver a "long-term benefit to the community."
The four properties at the site are assessed at a total of $1.5 million, but the new buildings will generate $6 million in taxes when the abatement ends, Czerniecki said.
Some residents are not convinced the project is a good idea. But at the March 17 meeting, they almost lost the opportunity to be heard.
After Gillespie advised Brown to recuse himself because of Brown's conflict of interest, the all-Republican council prepared to vote on the project.
Barbagiovanni interrupted, requesting time for public comment.
Gillespie said the time designated for public comment had passed and advised the council to proceed with the vote.
For three months, many Evesham residents who attend council meetings have felt shut out of the proceedings.
In January, Brown began refusing to respond directly to questioners during meetings, saying, "It's public comment, not public question and answer."
His new policy came after a resident, at the December council meeting, sought details about his decision to abstain on the redevelopment and another asked about the town's policy regarding tax abatements.
After a firestorm in town about his policy, Brown reversed course at this month's meeting and responded to several questions early on.
But then, as the night wore on, residents were told that the time set aside for comment on the redevelopment had expired, and new tensions arose in the room.
Councilman Ken D'Andrea then motioned to reopen the public comment period, dismissing Gillespie's advice to follow the rules and vote. The other council members, with Brown still to the side, went along.
Residents then expressed a variety of concerns about the proposed apartment project, including potential traffic issues. Scialabbo asked whether Brown was a principal in the project or had a financial interest in the developer's company.
Brown said nothing.
D'Andrea, who abstained in the vote, said that the Planning Board would have final say on the project and that he hoped the board would do its due diligence before allowing it to proceed.
One resident asked who appoints members to the Planning Board.
"Council," Brown said after he returned to the dais.
Then Brown attacked his critics, saying their comments were politically motivated.
He spoke at length but did not mention the redevelopment.