Rowan Files Suit Over Wal-Mart Site

By Denise Jewell

Rowan University plans to take developers involved in a project to build a Wal-Mart in Harrison Township back to court in an effort to take 115 acres slated for the shopping center by eminent domain.

In a lawsuit filed in Superior Court last week, Rowan University claims it has offered $8.38 million for two rural properties near the interchange of routes 55 and 322 where the developers have proposed building the shopping plaza.

The documents seek to condemn the property and to allow the state university to acquire the land through eminent domain.

Rowan's suit is the latest development in a legal battle between the Wal-Mart developers and Rowan University over the farmland that has drawn on for more than two years.

Last year, Superior Court Assignment Judge George H. Stanger Jr. denied a similar request by Rowan to condemn the property --then owned by a local farmer who had contracted to sell the land to the Turnersville-based American Continental Properties. Stanger ruled that the state university had failed to adequately negotiate for the land.

Since then, the latest suit contends, Rowan has made offers to Wal-Mart Real Estate Business Trust and ACP Harrison Developers LLC, the two entities that now own the tracts, but has failed to purchase the property.

"It just came to an impasse," said Joe Cardona, a Rowan University spokesman. "There came a point where there was no movement."

Rowan claims Wal-Mart, which owns 25 acres of the land Rowan wants, met with the university's appraiser to discuss the property, but did not make a counter-offer to the university's $2.85 million proposed price.

Mia Masten, a community affairs manager for Wal-Mart, disputed Rowan's claim that it had properly negotiated for the property.

"We don't have any formal negotiations," Masten said. "We're unaware of any that may have taken place."

The corporate chain expects to move forward with its plan to build a 149,500-square-foot shopping center on the site, Masten said.

Any appraisal by Rowan for the site would have to consider that it is now zoned for commercial use and includes the township's approval to build the chain store, Masten said.

"They had the opportunity years ago to buy this land," Masten said. "I'm sure at a much-reduced cost to the taxpayers."

Rowan's suit contends that the university came to a stalemate with ACP Harrison Developers after the university's $5.53 million offer fell short of the $15.25 million asking price ACP wanted for its 90-acre site.

Jim Speake, executive vice president of American Continental Properties Inc., which sold the 25-acre site to Wal-Mart last year, said he had not seen the condemnation suit as of Thursday afternoon.

Cardona said university representatives had taken "extra efforts" during the last year to patiently negotiate with the developers.

"We wanted to be as fair as possible," Cardona said. "We believe that we went far beyond what we needed to do."

The Arkansas-based chain received final approval from Harrison Township in February 2003 to build a green-and-beige superstore designed to blend with Mullica Hill's antique motif.

Harrison Township officials have estimated that the store would bring more than $1 million in tax revenue to the town, which has been struggling to boost commercial growth as the number of residential homes have increased.

"Right now, we have every intention of moving forward," said Masten, noting that store construction could begin as early as next year.

However, the university is planning to build new residence halls, academic buildings, athletic fields and a technology research facility in the area.

"There is a tremendous need in South Jersey for this university to be able to expand, and we're locked right now in 200 acres," Cardona said.

Cardona estimated that the university owns or has an option to buy about 450 acres out of about 600 acres the school projects that it will need near the Route 55 interchange. Many of the homeowners along Route 322 have already sold their properties to the university.

In January, Stanger allowed the university to move forward with proceedings to take a nearby 8-acre property through eminent domain.

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