By Luis Puga
A Superior Court judge on Tuesday ruled city residents were not properly informed of a public hearing on the $1.3 billion Cramer Hill redevelopment project last February and ordered the City Council to try - for a third time - to adopt the plan.
Judge Francis Orlando gave the city 90 days to approve the ordinance.
Orlando also upheld a restraining order barring the city from engaging in eminent domain - its right to take private property for a public purpose - but said people could still sell their property to the city voluntarily.
Richard Ochab, a spokesman for Cherokee Camden, the developer of the project, said the delay was unfortunate.
"But following the appropriate procedures and process is very important to this redevelopment project," he said, noting the company is committed to continuing the project.
Orlando's decision came during a hearing on pretrial motions in a lawsuit involving several Cramer Hill property owners opposed to the project.
The project has been the subject of at least two other procedural missteps by the City Council in the past - first in June 2004 when two council members who lived in the neighborhood voted on the project, and then in February, when the council did not give proper public notice to residents about the public hearing.
"What are we doing here if there is no plan," argued Fred Levin, an attorney representing Cramer Hill-based Riverfront Recycling, slated for acquisition. He asked Orlando to void the entire plan.
"The city was not trying to act in secrecy," Orlando noted. "They made a misstep."
Elesha Johnson, a staff member at the city clerk's office, told Orlando she faxed notice of the public hearing in February to reporters for the Courier-Post and the Philadelphia Inquirer 47 hours before the meeting. Orlando ruled that state law strictly requires 48-hour notice.
Orlando declined to rule on three alleged conflicts of interests that have been raised by plaintiffs. They include allegations that council President Angel Fuentes owns property in the neighborhood and Councilman Israel Nieves rents property in the neighborhood. Both could receive relocation assistance from the city under the plan.
Also, Councilwoman Dana Redd is chairwoman of Camden's Housing Authority, which operates Ablett Village, a complex that would be razed under the plan.
All three voted for the plan's first adoption in June 2004. Fuentes and Nieves did leave the room when the council readopted the plan in February.
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