Township poised to take isle by eminent domain: The Philadelphia (PA) Inquirer, 2/17/05

The future of Petty's Island is torn between waterfront development and a wildlife preserve

By Elisa Ung

Pennsauken [NJ] officials are poised to take a major step next week toward taking Petty's Island as part of a $1 billion waterfront redevelopment project.

On Wednesday [2/23], the township committee is expected to pass an ordinance authorizing Pennsauken to begin acquiring the 292-acre island through eminent domain. The island's owner, Citgo Petroleum Corp., is opposed to the development and wants to donate the land as a nature preserve.

"We are committed to passing the ordinance and committed to the planned project on Petty's Island and the entire waterfront," Mayor Jack Killion said in a statement yesterday.

Home to a pair of nesting bald eagles, Petty's Island has become a battleground between those who want to preserve it - its owner and state environmentalists - and those who want it as part of the waterfront development. The latter include township officials, South Jersey Democrats, and the developer, Cherokee Investment Partners, which also is redeveloping Camden's Cramer Hill neighborhood.

Cherokee has already gained access to the land for preliminary work. Next week's ordinance would be the next step in the eminent-domain process.

Pennsauken then plans an appraisal of the property's market value, township solicitor David Luthman said. If Citgo balked at its offer, the township could go to court to acquire the island.

The township has the right to take Petty's Island through eminent domain because it is in a redevelopment zone.

"We can't stop them from passing this ordinance, but this doesn't mean the [legal] fight is over," said Robert Mahoney, Citgo's attorney.

Environmentalists also vowed to continue their efforts to kill the project. They have been trying to meet with the U.S. Department of Interior and are lobbying legislators.

However, the state has rejected the donation of the land as a nature preserve, and efforts to gain federal protection have been unsuccessful.

Pennsauken resident Betsy McBride, who formed a 50-member group that supports building housing and a golf course on the island, said members would attend the meeting to counter environmental groups.

"We are environmentalists, as well," she said. "We want the cleanest waterfront. We want development for the sake of the town. We want many of the things they want. We just think we can do it all."

(The Pennsauken Township Committee is scheduled to vote on 2/23 on an ordinance that would begin the acquisition of Petty's Island. The meeting is to begin at 6:30 p.m. in the municipal building, 5605 N. Crescent Blvd.)

The Philadelphia Inquirer: www.philly.com/mld/inquirer