By Dwight Ott
Camden's [NJ] $1.2 billion revitalization effort in Cramer Hill was dealt an unexpected setback yesterday when a judge temporarily blocked city officials from using eminent domain to acquire property until a court challenge is settled.
Attorneys for more than 200 Cramer Hill residents had petitioned Superior Court Judge Francis J. Orlando to block all or part of the Cramer Hill redevelopment plan until their original court case is settled. The residents argued that the city should not act until the outcome of their legal challenge, filed nine months ago.
The suit, scheduled to be heard in late June, contends that the city overstepped its legal authority in approving the plan, which includes relocating as many as 1,200 families.
Orlando agreed yesterday that the city should wait until the case is resolved before moving forward to acquire 72 properties needed to build affordable housing.
"I find the overriding theme is eminent domain," Orlando said yesterday. He called the petition for an injunction an effort to "stop government from moving ahead with its awesome powers of eminent domain."
"Hopefully," he said, "it will be decided in the next few months."
Orlando added that he would allow the city to proceed with making sales deals with residents who were willing to move voluntarily.
"I will allow the city to do appraisals," he said.
The 10-year revitalization plan announced last year by Cherokee Investment Partners of Raleigh, N.C., calls for construction of 6,000 houses, 500,000 square feet of retail space, a marina, and an 18-hole golf course in Cramer Hill. Officials tout the plan as a key component of the troubled city's ongoing state-funded overhaul.
Though the city was hit last July by the first lawsuit, officials tried to proceed with their plans to condemn the 72 Cramer Hill properties. Those properties were targeted for acquisition, and the city argued that it had the right to proceed under the Fair Housing Act rather than under the court-challenged redevelopment plan.
But Olga Pomar and David Rammler, two South Jersey Legal Services lawyers representing the residents, argued that this was an improper effort by the city to circumvent their lawsuit. They said their clients would be dealt irreparable harm if the city were allowed to proceed.
Orlando agreed. "These 72 units form an integral part of the plan and can't be looked at in isolation," he said.
Pomar was thrilled.
"It's very significant," she said. "The city's actions have caused incredible stress to my clients... . I'm happy I can tell them they don't have to worry about anything until the court case is over."
Councilman Ali Sloan El, a candidate for mayor who has argued that the revitalization effort is a dictatorship, agreed.
"Everything is going downhill for them [officials who favor the plan]... They came in with eight attorneys vs. two and were whipped."
But the city's state-appointed chief operating officer, Melvin R. "Randy" Primas Jr., said he did not view the decision as a major setback.
"The judge will hear the case in June," he said. "We can go forward with the property owners who want to sell. On one of the parcels, nearly all of the owners have agreed to the prices."
Primas said the city had realized that sooner or later there would be an injunction as a part of the court case. "This was not unanticipated."
The Philadelphia Inquirer: www.philly.com