The battle over a controversial apartment complex at the old Haddonfield Lumber site is likely headed for Superior Court, after an appeal by a residents’ group at the township level fell apart.
With a deadline of this Friday, Jan. 11, for the appeal, township officials last week notified Robert Shinn, the leader of a group of nine residents officially challenging the zoning board’s decision to allow the complex, the appeal couldn’t be rescheduled, due to notification requirements that mandated publication of a new appeal date 10 days in advance.
While the appeal to the council is a somewhat unusual step—councilman N. John Amato said he remembered only one other such appeal in the township in the last 30 years—Shinn and the others had hoped have the township hear the appeal and potentially stave off a costly court battle.
“It's really discouraging...I'm beginning to think there were people who never wanted to have this appeal,” Shinn said. “Now it's obvious it's going to cost us a lot of money to carry this forward to Superior Court.”
The original appeal hearing on the two variances the zoning board granted developer Buckingham Partners was scheduled for Dec. 19, but was called off two days before that, following a letter from Shinn to township officials raising concerns about a transcript of the original zoning board meeting, which Shinn called "unacceptable, incomplete and inaccurate."
Given those circumstances, the township council opted to postpone the hearing, township spokeswoman Bridget Palmer said.
“It was only fair he be given the opportunity to rectify that,” she said.
But Shinn claims the problems weren’t with the transcript itself, which the residents had to provide as part of the appeal process, but the quality of the recording, which he said rendered large portions of testimony at the meeting unintelligible.
“It wasn't the transcriptionist's fault,” he said.
Trying to salvage the appeal
The residents appealing the decision had hoped to clarify how the faulty transcript could be resolved during a conference call with attorneys for the township, developer and the appellants, Shinn said, but that fell through the same day the council postponed the hearing.
The residents then made an attempt via their attorney on Christmas Eve to contact the township and get the hearing rescheduled, only to find out the township solicitor was on vacation and wouldn’t be able to respond until after the new year.
From there, it was silence until Jan. 3, Shinn said, when he got a call from Mayor Chuck Cahn and council President David Fleisher, who notified him as a courtesy that time had run out on scheduling the hearing before council—notice would’ve had to be sent out by Jan. 2. Official notice came a day later.
There may have been the possibility of extending the deadline, Palmer said, but were that the case, all three parties—the developer, the township and the residents—would’ve had to OK the extension.
While requests for comment from Buckingham Partners representatives went unreturned Wednesday, the firm’s attorney, Kevin Sheehan, of Parker McCay, had questioned the validity of the appeal in the first place, making an extension unlikely.
There was no guarantee any decision rendered by the township council would’ve settled the matter, either—Buckingham Partners could’ve taken a reversal of the original decision to court, and residents would’ve only had the court appeal option had council upheld the zoning board’s call.
“They didn't even come close”
Despite the setback, there’s no diminished desire to fight the 152-apartment complex, Shinn said, and the residents’ concerns go beyond the concerns over a loss of ratables by turning a commercial property into housing.
“A lot of people are opposed to this project for what it is—the traffic, the added high-density housing,” Shinn said. “We're as much concerned about the process…it just makes me even more concerned about how land use decisions are being made in this township.”
Allowing the two variances—putting housing where it’s currently prohibited and allowing buildings to exceed 35 feet tall—was a mistake, Shinn said, and doesn’t make sense, given the standards Buckingham Partners had to meet to be granted the variances.
“They didn't even come close to that in this case,” Shinn said.
In his response to the original appeal filing, though, Sheehan dismissed many of the residents’ claims—including arguments about the density, zoning and traffic—as an attempt to go beyond the record of the zoning board hearing, something he said is out-of-bounds in an appeal.
“The October 18, 2012, letter is an attempt by the appellant to present testimony that neither he, nor the other objectors, presented at the hearing,” Sheehan wrote.
He went on to savage many of Shinn’s claims in the appeal filing, skewering more than a dozen that cited no connection to the official record of the zoning board meeting and attacking Shinn for making what Sheehan called “planning testimony for which the appellant is not qualified to render an opinion.”
Going to court
Moving the appeal up to Superior Court will inevitably prove costly, Shinn said, with the potential bill climbing as high as $15,000, depending on whether it moves into the court’s appellate division.
All that will have to be borne by the residents, Shinn said, and they’ve started taking donations via their website, barclayarea.com, in an attempt to defray that cost.
“None of us have any financial stake in the outcome,” he said. “This is more of a civic cause.”
They’ve already taken in a few thousand in donations, and Shinn said he’s encouraged by his neighbors’ willingness to pitch in—including those who have started displaying huge signs regarding the appeal in an attempt to solicit more donations ahead of a mid-February filing deadline for the court appeal.
One resident who had planned to be at the council appeal called it unbelievable the township would call off the proceeding and not put it back on ahead of the deadline, forcing the court appeal.
“We already pay taxes, now we have to dig deeper into our pockets,” Martha Wright said.
Like others who have spoken out about the project, Wright raised concerns ranging from the stress on the school system to traffic on already-choked Brace Road, and questioned whether the apartments are really a net positive for the area.
“The only parties that benefit from this, as far as I can tell, are the developers,” she said. “The long-term cost is on the residents.”