Township Today: Still Park debacle remains at impasse after hearing
July 20, 2017
On June 10, the N. John Amato Council Chambers was practically filled to capacity. About twice the number of chairs had been put out, and even then both sides of the room still contained a number of citizens standing. For the first time since the founding of the town (I assume), the township ran out of copies of the agenda. And this crowd was riled up; exclamations and accusations came from both the audience and from the council. It was, in essence, the kind of council meeting I have always wanted to go to — only, it was for a vote to finalize a decision bound in contract over two years ago.
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Back in June of 2015, the Woodcrest Country Club (bordered by Haddonfield-Berlin Road, East Evesham Road, and Route 73) had fallen on hard times, and as a result the land went up for auction. Although the township attempted to bid for the land, ownership went to Cherry Hill Land Associates, who planned to develop the land of the golf course into housing, a lucrative venture in a town with very little undeveloped space left. In a last-ditch effort to prevent this, the township forced the developer to keep Woodcrest Country Club as a country club, but also gave them the right to build in three areas on the west side of town: the Victory Refrigeration site, the Park Boulevard site, and the infamous Hampton Road site.
A lot of people have referred to the whole thing as the Still Park debacle, because of the name of the neighborhood, but it is kind of important to note the actual geographic location: the land sits right across from the Merchantville golf club, near the Motor Vehicles Commission and The Courier Post headquarters. On this plot are two things, specifically the former plant for WB Saunders company and an area of untouched forest. Obviously the community is more concerned with the redevelopment of the forest even though it only touches the properties of 7 homes.
The plan for the land, as outlined by Group Melvin Design, is to remove the current structures and some of the undeveloped land and replace it with 300 units of housing. Within this complex, 45 units would be reserved for affordable housing.
At the meeting, residents of the Still Park neighborhood loudly and articulately told the council of their concerns. The vote was originally slated to take place during that meeting after public comment, but the council decided to postpone on account of the large turn-out. I received the full force of the voices of these impassioned citizens from the second row.
I will not bore you by making read through a long section full of names, quotes, technical terms, et cetera, et cetera. If you want that, watch the livestream of the meeting. I was exhausted when I entered the meeting, but I did not miss a word during the two and a half hours during which I sat there. Also, if you attend Cherry Hill East or are the parent of an East student, you probably will not be affected by the development project, so the analysis will be more important to you. Instead, I will summarize the key points.
- The contrast with the residential area would be an eyesore. All of the homes in Still Park are single family homes and one or two stories tall.
- Township services would be stressed. No provisions were made in the plan to account for the increase in driving and foot traffic, as well as for the education of any children.
- The reduction of green space would cause ecological harm. A number of residents talked about the abundance of animals in the neighborhood as a result of the forested area. Some also mentioned the town’s commitment to the Paris climate treaty and sustainability in general.
- Affordable housing would increase. The issue of increasing the number of “poor” families in the area was the elephant in the room for much of the meeting, even though it seemed to be a primary concern for many.
- The quality of the neighborhood atmosphere would decrease. Little reason was given for this argument, but many speakers mentioned it.
- The construction of apartments would reduce the value of the homes near the site. Citizens of the town who had paid taxes to Cherry Hill for their entire lives could expect greater trouble selling their homes and getting a good price because of all of the aforementioned issues.
- Few people had been informed about the plans. When a visual survey was done by a speaker, it seemed that a very small fraction knew about the plan before hearing of the vote, and that even fewer had worked with the township to develop the plan.
- The west side of town was being overburdened with development projects. The specific line of reasoning was that the town gave the developer sites on the west side in exchange for the Woodcrest Country Club, on the east side.
When I left the meeting, I began to analyze the proceedings as a journalist and podcaster who had infrequently covered the town council as a beat. On the surface, the issue seems pretty simplistic; the township should respect the best interests of all citizens and as a result keep Still Park’s happy little forest. It is definitely a lot more complicated.
For one, the town is contractually obligated to let the developer use some land. Like it or not, there will be more apartments in town as a result of the dealings that occurred after the auction of the Woodcrest Country Club, and they have to go on a piece of land where there currently is not anything.
We also have to remember there really is not much undeveloped space left in the town. Although the township may have acted rashly when they promised the developer the three sites in exchange for continuing the operation of the Woodcrest Country Club, the amount of real estate, specifically homes, that would have been affected by the clubs redevelopment would have been much larger, as shown on the maps. The Hampton Road plot contains a derelict building, whereas the golf remains fully functional and continues to serve the public, so for the preservation of useful land the current plan makes sense.
Even if the township was negligent in giving notice to citizens, Still Park residents should have also known about the plans. Most of the stories I used on the plan are from March and were in major local news sources, so it seems impossible that somehow the story did not at least spread a little among neighbors. If it did not, it really cannot be solely blamed on the township.
A number of the speakers also attempted to blame the current state of affairs on the town council’s preference through the east side, represented through the zip code of 08002 for the west side, and 08003 for the east side. Although they intended to portray housing development as the main cause of differences in wealth and homeownership, we need to make sure to keep the numerous socioeconomic differences between the sides of town in mind. With that as a guide, it becomes obvious that exasperating differences would not be the main outcome from the project.
I caught a lot of NIMBYism(not in my backyard) during and after the meeting, which is understandable, but is in no way, shape, or form the valid reason necessary to stop the township from going ahead with the vote. For members of our community primarily concerned with their own homes the level of anger shown was understandable, but it is not the sustainable solution needed to end the continued development of Cherry Hill’s neighborhoods.