Cramer Hill plan tossed: (Camden NJ) Courier-Post, 1/25/06

By Renee Winkler

A Superior Court judge on Monday invalidated the city's redevelopment plan for the Cramer Hill neighborhood, ruling that the planning board erred when it neglected to swear in two land-use experts before they testified in May 2004.

The ruling by Superior Court Judge Michael J. Kassel invalidated both the planning board resolution establishing Cramer Hill as an area in need of redevelopment and City Council's ordinance creating a redevelopment plan for the neighborhood.

It marked the third time a judge found fault with the way city officials proceeded with the plan, which would require the relocation of about 700 families to make way for 5,000 new housing units, 500,000 square feet of commercial space and a golf course.

But at least one city official who supports the project said proponents will do what they have to do to see it to fruition.

"We are committed to moving forward," Randy Primas, the city's chief operating officer, said after Kassel's ruling. "We think it's a good plan."

Kassel's ruling leaves Cherokee Investment Partners of Raleigh, N.C., as the entity with a contract to carry off the $1.2 billion redevelopment plan but without a designated community in which to work.

Kassel kept intact a court order that bars the purchase of properties through condemnation proceedings in the neighborhood.

City officials now must schedule another planning board meeting, at which testimony again would be taken to determine whether Cramer Hill is a blighted neighborhood.

If the planning board passes such a resolution, the matter would proceed to City Council, which again would have to adopt an ordinance establishing a redevelopment plan.

Both actions require public hearings.

"Those who voted for it are still on the planning board and City Council," Primas said.

Primas and Joseph Kenney, an attorney for the Camden Redevelopment Agency, argued unsuccessfully for a 90-day stay on a trial that was to begin today.

If the plaintiffs who are seeking to block the redevelopment continue their objection, it would cause a lengthy delay while a new lawsuit is filed, Kenney said.

Kassel, who took over as the judge in the case several months ago, said he would keep the case and permit attorneys to rely on depositions and expert reports that already have been completed.

The challenge to the validity of the planning board's vote was a last-ditch move by Jeffrey I. Baron, a land-use attorney retained by Camden businessman William Hargrove to stop the redevelopment project.

Baron, who estimated that legal fees for both sides in the dispute have topped half a million dollars, argued that a review of procedures showed that neither Anish Kuman, the author of a study that found Cramer Hill to be in need of redevelopment, nor city planner Charles E. Lyons were sworn in before giving their reports at two planning board meetings in May 2004.

Jeffrey Miller, an attorney for Cherokee, tried to downplay the importance of an oath, referring to the board's actions as legislative only, not judicial.

Kassel rejected Cherokee's argument, saying, "It's not testimony unless it's sworn. It just words."

After the hearing, Miller acknowledged he was surprised by the judge's ruling but said Cherokee will continue to push for approval of the project.

In the meantime, he said, Cherokee is busy with a redevelopment plan in Pennsauken.

Within hours of Kassel's ruling, Primas was trying to contact planning board members to set up another meeting. He could not estimate how quickly that meeting could be scheduled, but he did say it requires public notice and could possibly be held on a Saturday.

Primas said he believed that misunderstanding about the redevelopment proposal led to residents' opposition, including the appearance of about 800 people at a public hearing before council.

"I think people now understand we're not talking about taking everyone's home," he said.

Two residents who attended Monday's court hearing, however, remained opposed to the plan.

Colandus "Kelly" Francis, president of the Camden County branch of the NAACP and a resident of Camden's Parkside community, said the plan to sell market-value housing in the city's riverfront area is not workable.

"People are not going to pay $200,000 for a home when there aren't good schools, good city services, limited fire protection and limited police," Francis said. "The taxes would kill you. For a $200,000 house, you'll have to pay $9,000 taxes in Camden. Go to Cherry Hill and pay $6,000."

Samuel Benson of North Camden, a city resident since 1958, described the invalidation of the resolution and ordinance as "a huge victory."

"I know they will come back again. This isn't over with," Benson added. "City officials are dealing with billions of dollars. They're not going to turn their back on it."

Benson said he believes the city's next attempt at redevelopment will be in North Camden.

"And we're not going to just give it up," he said.

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