Read all about it - 2005
Collingswood's success made Maley key redevelopment player
Sunday, January 9, 2005
By LAWRENCE HAJNA
Jim Maley strides through Collingswood confidently, like a man on a mission.
In a sense, he is. He's on a mission to clean up his town.
And, some would say, South Jersey.
Almost out of obscurity, Maley has risen to become one of the prominent figures in the region's redevelopment efforts.
As a cold, light drizzle falls, the borough's mayor points out businesses along or near Haddon Avenue - the main thoroughfare through the borough of 14,000 - that he says have been transformed by the state's redevelopment law.
The Italian restaurant that was once a dilapidated greeting card shop. The architectural firm that was once an abandoned office building. The gas station that is now a Bobby Chez Crabcakes restaurant. The lumberyard set to become a condominium and retail complex.
To Maley, these are examples that the Local Housing and Redevelopment Law has worked in Collingswood. But he acknowledges it can easily be abused, and says eminent domain should be
a last resort.
"We've used it sparingly," he said.
Twice, the borough sought to condemn an old greeting card shop on Haddon Avenue, which was suffering from severe water damage that was unsightly and plagued adjoining businesses with musty odors.
But Nunzio Patruno stumbled on the property before it was condemned.
Patruno, who already had a restaurant in Philadelphia, was actually lost while trying to find Haddonfield.
But he liked Collingswood so much, he purchased the greeting card shop despite its problems. He will soon celebrate the one-year anniversary of Nunzio's Ristorante Rustico.
He supports what the borough has been doing, even if it means being aggressive with property owners.
"The town should step in and acquire the properties and sell them to people who want to invest and do something good for the town," he said. "When you have a small town, it will deteriorate and collapse if you neglect it." Towers renovated
Maley was practicing general law and serving as a Collingswood borough commissioner in the mid-1990s when he realized the redevelopment law could be used to help renovate Sutton Towers, a bankrupt high-rise apartment complex that was mostly vacant.
The building became symbolic of the spread of urban blight from Camden to its inner-ring suburbs.
"It became symptomatic as to what everybody's fear was, which was that the problems of Camden would creep over the borders," Maley said.
The borough acquired the complex through eminent domain and structured a $45 million deal that has made it an attractive place to live in again, Maley said.
Anne S. Babineau is a Woodbridge attorney who helped write the redevelopment law. She worked with Maley in applying it to the Sutton Towers redevelopment project.
She acknowledges it creates difficulties - people sometimes have to give up their homes and businesses for the good of the community, a concept she notes has been consistently upheld by the courts.
"That's the heart-rending part of the process," she said. "It's not like going into a cornfield and just dealing with taking down the corn."
Aggressiveness pays dividends, she argues. Redevelopment has made New Brunswick "feel like
the college town that it is," and has helped rid the north end of Atlantic City of drugs, crime and prostitution, she said.
Maley parlayed his experience into specializing in helping other towns with redevelopment plans. But he was still on his own.
Two years ago, Philip A. Norcross, brother of Democratic power broker George E. Norcross III, asked him to join his law firm - Parker McCay.
The sudden surge in towns seeking redevelopment zones since then is a coincidence, insists Maley. Towns and developers are becoming more interested in places like Collingswood, Woodbury, Cinnaminson and even Camden as virgin land dwindles, he says. A critic's concern
But R. William Potter, a Princeton attorney and critic of the redevelopment law, argues the law was infrequently used until a few years ago, when bond counsel firms began pushing it in publications distributed to local officials.
"Certainly the bond counsel firms have recognized it is incredibly attractive to municipal officials to say, `Look, we'll show how you can bond for these multimillion-dollar projects and you can escape local opposition,' " Potter said.
Parker McCay is one of the state's largest bond counsel firms. Through Maley, the firm has acted as both redevelopment consultant and has represented municipal and county agencies in condemnation proceedings.
Maley defends the system and his firm's role in it, saying it makes sense for one firm to handle multiple redevelopment roles.
"It's consolidating what law firms do. Lawyers who are commercial lawyers, and corporate lawyers do legal work, but they also do consulting about what's the right way to structure a deal and what makes business sense. It's really the same as that," he said.
"I happen to have some background in what a governing body might want to think about when they're going about doing a redevelopment area."
Maley is adamant that property owners do not have the right to neglect their structures or keep them vacant and drag down the rest of their neighborhoods and towns. As a result, elected officials must use a certain degree of subjectivity, he said.
"Guess what, a whole lot of what we do is subjective, a whole lot of the initiatives any governing body is going to undertake not everybody agrees with," he said.
"If people are not happy with the way we're doing it, they'll throw us out."
Reach Lawrence Hajna at (856) 486-2466 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Eminent domain before high court
Sunday, January 9, 2005
Transferring private land to other private hands at issue
By RICHARD PEARSALL
The U.S. Supreme Court will hear oral arguments Feb. 22 in a case that could have a major impact on New Jersey's redevelopment law.
Kelo v. New London is a Connecticut case that deals with "eminent domain," the right of government to seize private property for public use.
Eminent domain is the 800-pound gorilla at the center of the debate over redevelopment in New Jersey.
Without eminent domain, says David Speegle, president of the businessmen's association in Riverside, redevelopment would proceed more smoothly.
"If they could take that clause out, if that wasn't part of the hammer, it might go over better," Speegle said, speaking of his township's plan to redevelop the so-called Golden Triangle and the area around it.
The right of government to take private property for public use is rooted in both federal and state constitutions and is based on the assumption that some projects - highways, for example, - are so important that seizure is justifiable.
It is enshrined in the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in a single phrase: "nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation." Connecticut case
In the New London, Conn., case, the plaintiffs are a group of longtime homeowners, landlords and businessmen in what is described as a working-class neighborhood.
They contend their local government overstepped its authority in condemning their properties for "private" use - the construction of a hotel, health club, condominiums and offices.
"Does the U.S. Constitution allow the government to take property from private party in order to give it to another private party because the new owner might produce more profit and more taxes for the City from the land?" their legal team at the Institute for Justice, a Washington-based public interest group, asks.
The Connecticut Supreme Court sided with New London, ruling 4-3 that the economic development the condemnation is intended to promote is sufficient justification for the municipality to proceed.
"This ruling is an invitation to disaster," the plaintiffs' legal team responded, "because every business generates more taxes than a home and every big business generates more taxes than a small one. If the ruling stands, any property can be taken through eminent domain.
"The U.S. Constitution and every state constitution requires that private property only be taken for `public use,' such as a road or public building, not for private economic gain," the plaintiffs' attorneys argue. "The use of eminent domain for the creation of tax revenue is the broadest and most dangerous expansion of eminent domain yet realized." Supreme Court
In September, the high court agreed to hear the plaintiffs' appeal.
The issues in the case are similar to those that have been raised in New Jersey.
Here, the debate is not over stimulating growth in areas the private sector has walked away from, but over government substituting one private property owner or use for another.
It is an issue that has emerged in Riverside.
Support for redevelopment of the Golden Triangle, a 30-acre former industrial area there, has been strong.
But as the plans have unfolded, they have been expanded to include the surrounding areas - the theory being that a "buffer zone" is necessary.
Stu Scott, 52, has lived in Riverside all his life and has run an auto repair business across the street from the Golden Triangle for more than 20 years.
The future of his and other auto repair ships on Pavilion Avenue are threatened because a developer interested in building townhouses and offices will not want such grimy neighbors in close proximity, township planners reason.
"I know we're out of here," Scott said, wondering just who is going to benefit from the "renaissance" of his town.
"These guys all want Cherry Hill," Scott said of the politicians and businessmen he believes are pushing the redevelopment project. "Well, let them move to Cherry Hill."
Clarence Newton, who operates the Volkswagen repair business next door, has a similar view.
Newton, 62, has lived in Riverside since he was 2.
"I'm a Riverside person," he said, "so if it's good for the town as a whole, I'm for it."
But he knows he's unlikely to find another spot large enough to accommodate the hundreds of old Volkswagens he has accumulated for parts to keep other "Bugs" and "Beetles" running.
And he wonders if it's really Riverside or its residents who will benefit.
"If it's going to be anyone's future, it should be the people who are here, not a gold mine for someone else."
On the other side of the Triangle, on Kossuth Street, Speegle operates a machine shop.
Rising to speak at a public hearing in November, Speegle noted that the list of permitted uses for his area included town houses, professional offices and day care centers, but nothing that seemed to include his business.
"I don't see anything in here for manufacturing," Speegle said. "I've been here since 1986 and have invested a good deal of money in this business."
Speegle was told that it was "very unlikely that the (land use) board would approve a site plan that would do away with a going business" and that, "if you're a pre-existing use, you get to stay."
Speegle stressed that, as a businessman and taxpayer in Riverside, he's not against redevelopment.
"The township will ultimately benefit if it brings in more ratables, and residents benefit if property values go up."
But he's worried nonetheless.
"Basically they tell you, `Don't worry. It's grandfathered.' But if you're in a redevelopment zone, you're in limbo."
Reach Richard Pearsall at (856) 486-2465 or email@example.com
Renewal benefits who?
Sunday, January 9, 2005
Broad redevelopment law favors those well-heeled, well-connected
By LAWRENCE HAJNA and RICHARD PEARSALL
Retrieving the sheet of paper from under his welcome mat, the Rev. Steve Elliott was startled to see a photograph of his parsonage with the notation that it was "dilapidated" and "in need of redevelopment."
Elliott knew the house was old - Dobbins United Methodist Church is nearly as old as Delanco itself - but he always thought of the handsome Victorian as well-maintained.
And he wondered what new and better use the township might have in mind.
The pastor and dozens of others whose homes or businesses were singled out in the township's "redevelopment survey" packed the next township committee meeting, demanding answers.
Amid cries of recall, the committee voted unanimously in November to scrap its fledgling redevelopment drive.
"I still don't know what they were up to," Elliott said weeks after the survey was scrapped.
Delanco residents are not alone in being perplexed and caught off guard. Redevelopment zones, once the province of inner cities, are popping up all over.
Places you'd expect - blighted Camden and Newark, for example - have them.
So are places you would not - affluent Cherry Hill and Princeton have them. Even Haddonfield is considering one.
And many more municipalities in the middle of the economic ladder have them too.
Cinnaminson, Gloucester City, Gloucester Township, Mantua and Woodbury are just some of the more than 50 tri-county communities where more than 100 zones have been established.
For the most part, the zones are conceptual. Exceptions include West Deptford's RiverWinds community complex, built on an old dredge spoils dump along the Delaware River.
And Collingswood has been hailed as the model for redevelopment. The borough was one of the first in South Jersey to use powers provided under a 1992 redevelopment law to revitalize its downtown, business by business.
South Jersey's zones, encompassing everything from single lots to entire neighborhoods, are designed to stimulate development where it might not happen otherwise - old gas stations, abandoned factories, derelict shopping centers. Zone development
Thousands, perhaps tens of thousands of new homes, golf courses, industrial parks, hotels and retail centers, could be built if plans for all these zones come to be.
But all this redevelopment is coming at a cost. Municipal leaders are telling people who have long been content with their homes and businesses that their properties simply do not fit their municipalities' visions for the future.
Some property owners are often left baffled as to how municipal officials got so much power and whether they are using it strictly to help their towns - or to enrich well-connected lawyers, bond firms and consultants.
At issue is the 1992 law that gives municipalities sweeping redevelopment powers.
Broadly, the Local Housing and Redevelopment Law allows local governing bodies to designate areas in need of redevelopment, create partnerships with developers without bids, offer property tax incentives and, most important, use eminent domain - an old concept once largely reserved for road construction - to acquire properties on behalf of developers.
"From a democratic standpoint, it erodes peoples' right of voice in their community," Jane Nogaki, an activist with the New Jersey Environmental Federation, said of the law. A backlash
A backlash is building, and not just in the form of angry residents turning up at municipal meetings.
In Lindenwold, Camden, Mount Holly and Ventnor, lawsuits have been filed, charging racial and economic discrimination in plans seen as efforts to replace lower-income housing with upscale units.
Property owners and developers displaced by municipally appointed builders also have filed suits. Lawsuits stemming from redevelopment disputes have been filed against Haddon Township, Cinnaminson and Paulsboro.
Other developers may have not filed suit but are becoming increasingly frustrated, saying the process is effectively pushing out small developers in favor of large, politically connected ones. Just politics?
"It's horrible, they have such power," said Dan Riiff, whose Blackwood Redevelopment Corp. has twice seen commercial redevelopment projects come into conflict with redevelopment zones. "It's the greatest abuse of powers I've ever seen."
George Gallenthin owns marshland in Paulsboro formed by the dumping of river dredge spoils. It is included in an ambitious port redevelopment plan for the old BP petroleum tank farm.
Gallenthin argues politicians are trying to use the law to wrest control of his land and gain access to the spoils as fill for redevelopment projects taking shape across the region.
"Government is supposed to regulate development, not join it," said Gallenthin, who filed a federal lawsuit against the borough, county agencies, law firms and consultants over his property's inclusion in the zone.
"This interlocking secondary economic interest gets in the way of their primary responsibility to represent the public," he said.
People who live in the zones often do not realize it, or have only a faint inkling of what the zones are.
Barbara Stabeno is a retired administrative assistant who lives on the edge of a redevelopment zone for downtown Westville. Local officials hope to revitalize the district by replacing shuttered buildings and sprucing up others.
Stabeno lives on New Street, just a few houses from Broadway, the borough's main street. She vaguely recalls receiving a letter from the borough about the redevelopment zone but can't recall what it said.
She also read updates about the plan in the municipal newsletter, but adds, "I read them quickly; I don't really study them." Cronyism?
R. William Potter, a Princeton attorney who follows redevelopment patterns in New Jersey, said the law requires planning boards to hold hearings when a municipality delineates a redevelopment zone.
But notices to the public are often vague, hidden in small newspaper legal notices, or don't fully outline the stakes involved, he said.
Perhaps the greatest surprise to residents is the use of eminent domain, once used sparingly, to make redevelopment projects happen, he said.
Potter, who represented Princeton residents in their unsuccessful fight against redevelopment of a parking lot, calls the process set up by the law "an invitation to cronyism and corruption."
The criteria to qualify for designation as a redevelopment zone are so broad and subjective that virtually any neighborhood can be declared a redevelopment zone, Potter said.
Potter argues the law gives political machines, under the guise of smart-growth, the opportunity to manipulate redevelopment projects to the benefit of consultants, bond counsels, bond underwriters, unions, and politically connected developers and builders.
The law, he argues, "essentially opened up this Pandora's box by exempting municipal officials from a whole series of laws intended to promote public participation, provide for referenda, and require competitive bidding."
Often, residents in municipalities with redevelopment zones do not realize their towns face drastic changes until well into the process, usually after developers armed with condemnation powers have been named, Potter said.
Case in point: In Riverside, a November hearing to conduct a "preliminary investigation" into the expansion of a proposed redevelopment zone was held after the zone's boundaries had been drawn. At the hearing, township officials and their consultants proved more intent on defending an established plan than seeking resident input on creating one. Call for reforms
Calls for reforming the law are coming from groups as diverse as the New Jersey Builders Association, which generally favors development, and New Jersey Future, a nonprofit group that lobbies for smart growth planning - the concept that open space should be protected by redeveloping older urban areas.
"The criteria in the law need to be tightened up, particularly as they relate to eminent domain," said Joanne Harkins, the builders association's director of planning.
The law "gives municipalities incredibly broad powers and they can transfer those to a developer," she said. "It doesn't benefit anyone if there is so much controversy that development is deferred."
Teri Jover is a planner for Trenton-based New Jersey Future. She said paying lip service to public involvement or following the letter of the law is not enough.
"Basic requirements are that you notify property owners within 200 feet and put a public notice in the paper. But you need to go beyond that," she said.
In South Jersey, people with ties to the Democratic machine forged by George E. Norcross III have emerged as key players in promoting, creating and implementing redevelopment zones.
A former Camden County Democratic chairman, Norcross is a major shareholder in one of the region's most powerful financial institutions, Commerce Bancorp. He is an undisputed behind-the-scenes force in regional and state politics.
One of the most visible players in redevelopment is Collingswood Mayor M. James Maley, of the Marlton law firm of Parker McCay.
A lawyer who developed expertise in the redevelopment law through his work revitalizing his own town, Maley now serves as a consultant on 24 municipal redevelopment efforts.
He was asked to join the firm by one of its partners, Philip A. Norcross, George Norcross' brother. The firm benefits not only from Maley's work creating the redevelopment zones but also from fees collected by its bond counsels in financing them.
The firm has served as counsel for tens of millions of dollars in bonds issued by county governments in South Jersey, including improvement authorities that coordinate bonding for redevelopment projects.
George Norcross did not respond to requests for interviews made through his secretary and through Democratic Party spokesmen.
Philip Norcross, managing shareholder and chief executive officer of Parker McCay, would not comment on the firm's finances or business practices. He referred questions on redevelopment projects the firm is involved with to Maley, who heads the redevelopment arm of the the practice.
Maley insists the Norcross machine has never tried to push redevelopment projects through him.
"This is about individual municipalities that want to invest in themselves and make themselves better," said Maley. "It's to help them control their destiny."
He also contends it makes sense for municipalities to behave like businesses to try to stop their downward economic slide before it's too late.
Another key player is Louis Bezich. The former Camden County business administrator is providing guidance to at least half a dozen towns through his Haddonfield consulting firm, Public Solutions.
He says that redevelopment "starts with a basic value decision, that it's better to redevelop an existing area than develop open space. . . ."
"Redevelopment is more complex," he said, "but if you ask the public if fixing up an old downtown is a good thing, most, I think, will say yes," he said. "Economic development has become a central function of government." Politics gone awry?
But Riiff, the Gloucester Township developer, wonders whether government is going too far, interfering with the private market.
The Camden County Improvement Authority filed suit to condemn the old Route 30 Mall in Clementon, which Riiff was trying to acquire and redevelop into a sports and fitness complex. He pulled out, losing a $50,000 down payment.
He is now embroiled in another dispute with Gloucester Township officials, who envision hundreds of new homes in a redevelopment zone at the center of Blackwood, where Riiff wants to renovate an old textile plant into a catering hall.
Maley, who represented the improvement authority in the Route 30 Mall condemnation proceeding, argues Riiff's plans were not that far along and that the county has a better plan for houses vied for by"real, reputable companies," including K. Hovnanian, the state's largest developer.
Maley argues some developers often lack specific development plans but try to "wedge" themselves into the municipal plans.
But Riiff argues it all seems like politics gone awry.
"If you go through Pennsauken, you see all the vacant buildings that have been vacant for 20 years, the industrial buildings - that's what it was done for," he said of the redevelopment law. "It wasn't done to redo Blackwood."
HOW TO COMMENT
If you'd like to comment on New Jersey's redevelopment law, contact your local legislator:
The 3rd District
Sweeney, Sen. Stephen M. (D): (856) 251-9801, firstname.lastname@example.org
Burzichelli, Assemblyman John J. (D): (856) 251-9801,email@example.com
Fisher, Assemblyman Douglas H. (D): (856) 251-9801,firstname.lastname@example.orgThe 4th District
Madden, Sen. Fred H. (D): (856) 227-5900; (856) 232-6700, email@example.com
Mayer, Assemblyman David R. (D): (856) 227-5900; (856) 232-6700, firstname.lastname@example.org
Smith, Assemblyman Robert J. (D): (856) 227-5900; (856) 232-6700, email@example.comThe 5th District
Bryant, Sen. Wayne R. (D): (856) 757-0552, firstname.lastname@example.org
Cruz-Perez, Assemblywoman Nilsa (D): (856) 541-1251,email@example.com
Roberts, Assemblyman Joe (D): (856) 742-7600,firstname.lastname@example.orgThe 6th District
Adler, Sen. John H. (D): (856) 489-3442, email@example.com
Greenwald, Assemblyman Louis D. (D): (856) 783-0444,firstname.lastname@example.org
Previte, Assemblywoman Mary T. (D): (856) 857-0777,email@example.comThe 7th District
Allen, Sen. Diane B. (R): (609) 239-2800, firstname.lastname@example.org
Conaway, Assemblyman Herb (D): (856) 461-3997,email@example.com
Conners, Assemblyman Jack (D): (856) 461-3997,firstname.lastname@example.orgThe 8th District
Bark, Sen. Martha W. (R): (856) 234-8080, email@example.com
Bodine, Assemblyman Francis L. (R): (856) 234-8080,firstname.lastname@example.org
Chatzidakis, Assemblyman Larry (R): (856) 234-8080,email@example.com
Reach Lawrence Hajna at (856) 486-2466 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Reach Richard Pearsall at (856) 486-2465 or email@example.com
Riverside property owner relegated to bystander role
Sunday, January 9, 2005
Experts say public input crucial to renewal law
By RICHARD PEARSALL
Wayne Lippincott bought the old Keystone Watch Case factory here in 1987, renovated a small part of the historic structure for his engineering office and has been trying to develop the rest of it ever since.
But Lippincott was little more than an observer Dec. 13 when township officials voted to name Keating/Pulte the redeveloper of the Golden Triangle, the former industrial tract that is anchored by the Keystone Watch Case factory.
"I guess that property owners are not as important in development as they used to be," Lippincott said after the meeting, at which he introduced himself for the first time to the Keating executive heading up the project.
Some people involved with the redevelopment process in New Jersey stress the importance of involving the public.
"It's a straight-forward process, but a complicated one," says Stan Slachetka, a planner who co-wrote a handbook on redevelopment for the state Department of Community Affairs.
"Towns must be very careful to get the community involved each step of the way."
Adds Teri Jover, a planner with New Jersey Future, which supports redevelopment zones as a way to curb sprawl: "The public process needs to be maintained by more than just the book. You need to be constantly holding public meetings. It's a continuous process."
But in practice, public participation is not always extensive.
Plans to convert the Golden Triangle into a mix of townhouses, condos and shops have been discussed in Riverside - in general terms - for years.
But as the plans have grown closer to reality, the public and even the property owners directly affected have been less involved.
On Nov. 3, the township's Land Use Board held a public hearing to "conduct a preliminary investigation" into redeveloping the area surrounding the Golden Triangle.
At the hearing, township officials and their consultants answered questions about a zone that had already been drawn.
After the three finalists submitted their specific plans for redeveloping the Golden Triangle in early December, township officials picked Keating/Pulte before members of the public had a chance to view, much less discuss, any of the three proposals.
Keating/Pulte, a partnership between a Philadelphia developer and a nationwide home builder, proposes to build 386 housing units and 24,000 square feet of retail space on the roughly 32 acres that constitute the Golden Triangle, so called because of its shape and its promise.
Township officials said they picked Keating/Pulte because it envisioned fewer housing units and would have less impact on township services or taxes.
But the proposals from the three developers differed in more than just housing density.
The Keating proposal envisions more retail space, for example, and was the only one of the three to extend its vision beyond the Golden Triangle to the surrounding areas, picturing an extension of townhouse construction to neighborhoods on each side.
Reach Richard Pearsall at (856) 486-2465 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Excerpts from taped conversations
Friday, April 1, 2005
Excerpts from a Jan. 3, 2001, conversation between John Gural, Palmyra's current mayor who was a borough councilman when this tape was recorded; Democratic power broker George E. Norcross III, and Mark Neisser, who was president of JCA, a Moorestown engineering firm that did business for municipalities.
JG: I heard a rumor today. I don't want . . . I don't want (inaudible: i/a) I don't think it's true but (i/a) Lou Greenwald is going to work for Remington (i/a)
GN: No, it is true.
JG: It is true?GN: (i/a) practice of law and they made him a gigantic offer.
JG: No s---
GN: And. Uh, I actually had a conversation with Remington and he said uh . . . uh.
MN: Thank you.
JG: Thank you very much.
MN: Is there any decaf around ma'am?"
UF: Yes, there is.
JG: Thank you.
GN: I said. over the year, I will say the last five or six years they have really neglected their base in Burlington, Gloucester counties and they've lost I think a lot of good will and that and that's because of Schoor-DePalina and you who have basically slid in and developed that good will and I think their eye was off the ball and uh, they realized they needed to create some good will so they make Lou an offer he couldn't turn down.
MN: No kidding. So he's gonna go to work, to work full time?"
GN: Started uh, yesterday.
MN: That's funny. He's doing an assignment for me. If it was that important he didn't tell me. (i/a) 2GN: Yeah (i/a).
MN: And his job is more like marketing?"
GN: Oh what else would it be? (laughter) (i/a) Yeah. No, I'm sure he'll do some legal work for him, but it's gonna be a joke.
JG: And he's gonna stay as the assemblyman?"
GN: Oh sure. He doesn't like practicing law.
JG: He doesn't?
GN: No, never did.
JG: Wow. So I guess they'll be back in the fold.
GN: Well, if it can't get much worse.
JG: Yeah, that's true.
GN: But, I'm not sure why they even go there to tell you the truth. Um. You know a lot of the relationships are fairly strong, you know. Uh, they called me last week trying to uh change things in Voorhees and I said uh I'm no w---- so.
JG: I guess you know what's happening tonight there
GN: Why? Do you think you know more than I know?"
JG: No, of course not, come on.
GN: We're going to do better than we even thought.
JG: I think we'll do okay.
GN: We're supposed to get the planning board, too.
JG: You sure? No. They couldn't get the (i/a).
GN: You sure about that?"
JG: As of this morning. We're gonna be township engineers.
GN: I know that, who they, who they are going to move in and out of there?"
JG: They can't get the votes. They.
GN: They can't get rid of Adams.
MN: Right (i/a).
JG: So Schoor DePalma's coming in as special projects.
GN: Water sewer.
JG: Water sewer Alaiino (Alaimo?) will finish up the job he's doing.
JG: And that's it.
GN: Here's something you should check into. They gave Alaimo or the design and the construction management of this. What? Dam or something? I say to them, I think that's very unusual to have the fox in the chicken coop. Now maybe I'm wrong about that but I would never hire a construction manager and have the same guy design it.
GN: Is he going to tell me something wrong?
MN: What we ... we, we're, uh.
GN: You do that?"
MN: Well, We've used both sides of that, uh.
GN: Oh, you have?
MN: Yea (i/a).
GN: Yeah, alright.
MN: It happens.
GN: Well in fighting to beat in Alaimo brains into that and call it unethical and everything else.
JG: (laughter) It works sometimes.
MN: I'll, I'll, I'll keep that going. We just uh took, two, two.
GN: One of these things he Alaimo thinks he has the construction management according to that also.
MN: Oh really. I don't think so. I think he's been told he is going to finish up the job. Hit the road.
GN: He's going to finish up the design.
MN: The design, yeah.
Silver lining seen in tapes
Monday, April 4, 2005
Experts: Crass tone revealing
By THOMAS J. WALSH
Back-room dealing. Bold intimidation. Secret tape recordings. A political boss spewing foul-mouthed vitriol about elected officials. Allegations of cover-ups. Pay-to-play play-by-play.
As the story unfurls of taped conversations from four years ago between South Jersey political boss George E. Norcross III and his associates, the display of personal attacks, strong-arming and the consistent string of invective heard on the tapes paints a picture of New Jersey politics as usual, some political observers say.
But as the tapes see the light of day, there is some hope for change, they agree.
"This is the way New Jersey has operated for many years," said Cliff Zukin, a professor of public policy at Rutgers University in New Brunswick. "Machine politics has existed in Middlesex and Hudson counties and certainly in Camden. What's unusual here is Norcross trying to do it all across South Jersey, to rival some of the more populated counties elsewhere.
"It's not about good government - it's power and making money and rewarding friends. For some of them, it's about policy, but mainly it's keeping government power."
And that control, Zukin said, is the ultimate goal. The only thing better than power is more power.
"Power tends to corrupt and it becomes its own reward. It's an aphrodisiac. Powerful men want to stay powerful."
David Rebovich, a political science professor at Rider University in Lawrenceville, Mercer County, said Norcross "mortified himself" more than anyone else.
"He really did citizens a service on these tapes by allowing the public to see how political bosses operate."
Rebovich had advice for legislators not involved in the tapes or their related controversies. He said Norcross friends and allies like state senators John Adler, D-Cherry Hill, and Wayne Bryant, D-Lawnside, along with state assemblymen Louis Greenwald, D-Voorhees, and Joe Roberts, D-Camden, should speak out on how much their constituents should be concerned about Norcross.
"Step up, fellas, and explain to us what you think of those tapes," he said. "It's important that you convince the citizens of South Jersey that you have the well-being of the citizens and the state first."
Far-reaching influence can also be used in positive ways, and Norcross' many friends have said over the years that he has wielded his clout responsibly, even nobly. But one of the more troubling excerpts from the tapes released Thursday was Norcross describing a Democratic attorney who was being considered for a seat in the judiciary as an unliked and disposable figure.
The Norcross solution: "get rid of him" by letting him wear judicial robes. "The best thing you do . . . Make him a f------ judge and get rid of him," Norcross is heard saying. The attorney, John Harrington, was eventually appointed to the bench.
"The real problem, which these tapes don't get at, at all, is whether or not there are incompetent people in government," said John Weingart, deputy director of the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers. "That they are participating in politics is not in itself a problem. The biggest problem is if that leads incompetent people to be getting jobs, or caused qualified people to lose their jobs."
Weingart said it was tricky to pass judgment on what was thought at the time to be a private conversation, and he acknowledged that Norcross asked for the public release of the tapes.
"I'm not defending anyone. People talk crassly in any office or organization, and maybe in politics more so, I don't know," he said.
Weingart and others said the tapes, part of an investigation by the Attorney General's Office, need to be put in proper context. The investigation led to no criminal indictments.
But Jon Shure, president of New Jersey Policy Perspective, a Trenton-based political think tank, says the manner in which Norcross speaks on the tapes is indicative of a broader problem.
"The tone and tenor of a conversation like this is troubling," he said. "Not just what it says about an individual, but what it says about our culture and our state - the idea that money talks and that issues are not necessarily decided on their merits.
"Seeing more media scrutiny is a good thing. If we can't realistically expect people to be outraged about political reform then we should all pack it in. But I think people increasingly think they are being taken advantage of by elected and nonelected officials, and using tax dollars in undesirable ways."
Ev Liebman, program director for the political watchdog group New Jersey Citizen Action in Camden, said she was not surprised to learn of the nature of the tapes, given the way elections are financed.
"It highlights all of the problems associated with the pay-to-play culture in New Jersey," she said. "The culture has given rise to this type of power-brokering and this reveals the perks associated with it. People's jobs and careers are determined not on the basis of qualifications or of skill, but who pays to play."
Zukin says the actions taken by the Norcross political machine and the nature of what is revealed on the tapes simply reinforces what the public already believes.
"But with Norcross, because he is not elected, no one can hold this against him in a campaign. Partly that is the media's job, but in general it's very hard to get accountability."
Reach Thomas J. Walsh at (856) 486-2931 or email@example.com
Gural known for integrity in Palmyra
Sunday, April 10, 2005
Friends, foes praise mayor vilified for taping Norcross
By RICHARD PEARSALL
Courier-Post Staff PALMYRA
To those he secretly recorded, John Gural is a villain.
A "liar," a "malcontent" and a "political shakedown artist," William Tambussi, an attorney and spokesman for political boss George E. Norcross III, said of Gural 10 days ago when portions of the tapes were released.
But here in the town where he grew up and has lived most of his life, the Democratic mayor is widely seen as something of a hero.
"It took a lot more than it seems for him to stand up and do what he did," said Kevin Riley, 46, an electronics technician. "But he still went and did it. Anybody who will stand up for doing the right thing, for changing things, is OK by me."
"I think people are proud of him," said Carol Riener, the vice chairwoman of the local Democratic organization. "What he did reflects favorably on the community. He had the courage to stand up to these people and bring these tapes to the forefront."
For two months, between December 2000 and February 2001, Gural wore a recording device after going to the state Attorney General's Office with allegations that he was being pressured through the engineering firm that employed him at the time, JCA Associates, to do the bidding of Norcross and other Democratic leaders.
Gural says he felt he had no choice but to go to the authorities.
"Clearly, my job had been threatened. I'm not a wealthy man. I wanted to protect my family and maintain my integrity in the community," Gural said.
The results of his effort are just becoming public, with the release by the attorney general of a small portion of the recordings, those involving Norcross.
The Attorney General's Office insists that it found no grounds for indictments and closed its investigation without charging anyone.
But the portrait of backroom dealing, provided in Norcross' own profanity-laced words, has brought a cascade of criticism down on the power broker, generally conceded to be the most powerful politician in South Jersey.
When the tapes were released, Tambussi said they showed Norcross to be a "tough fighter" for his party and South Jersey. A popular figure
So just who is John Gural, the man who agreed to wear a recording device as part of an investigation by the Attorney General's Office four years ago and has, almost ever since, been engaged in a battle to "let the people hear what's on there and judge for themselves who's telling the truth?"
First and foremost, it seems, he is a "hometown boy."
Born in Philadelphia, he is the son of a shipyard worker and a stay-at-home mom who moved to Palmyra when he was 3.
Except for a five-year span when he and his wife lived in Mount Laurel, Gural, 46, has lived in the same house where he and his four siblings were raised. He and his wife, Eleanor, are now raising their two daughters there.
He was popular as a student at Palmyra High School and remains popular today. He was first elected to council in 1994 and in 2003 - two years after the story of the tapes became public - he was elected mayor by a comfortable margin.
He is widely perceived as honest and dedicated to the borough and his role as its leader.
Bob Leather, who was mayor of Palmyra from 1988 to 2002, first as a Republican, then as an independent, describes his Democratic successor as "an honest man . . . a very hard-working councilman and a very hard-working mayor. . . . He's on top of everything."
It's a description that pops up frequently among people who keep up with borough affairs.
"He's a hard-working mayor," said Anthony Fratto, the second-generation owner of Anthony's Jewelers, a fixture on Broad Street, and the president of the Business and Community Alliance. "He doesn't take it lightly."
Far from the man who barely gets a word in edgewise on the Norcross tapes, Gural is a talker, someone who speaks volubly and with candor.
"He doesn't play games," said Ken Brahl, who as a Republican ran against Gural for a council seat in 1997. "I would say `brutally honest.' I admire that about him."
Jean Butler, a 68-year-old community activist who is a regular at borough meetings, describes Gural as "very sincere."
"Whenever he's questioned by someone, he gives them an answer. He's never skirted an issue, always been forthright. I think he's a terrific young man."
"When he gives a speech he does not even have notes," Leather said. "He might have one or two ideas jotted down. Then he ad-libs."
Pamela Scott, a Democrat who served on council with Gural for eight years, describes his memory as photographic.
After Palmyra High, where he played soccer, Gural attended but did not graduate from the University of Delaware. Raising a family
He got married when he was 27, and he and his wife have two daughters, Lauren, 15, a freshman at Palmyra High, and Amanda, 12, who attends the St. Charles Borromeo school in Cinnaminson.
He was a project manager for JCA and now has the same title with a construction company in Vineland that he says he prefers not to name.
In 2001 he sued JCA for what he called a hostile and career-wrecking environment and won an out-of-court settlement, the terms of which remain secret.
Asked about hobbies, he has to think hard before coming up with reading and woodworking.
A man whose weight has gone up and down over the years - but mostly up - he marvels that he once sprinted up and down a soccer field.
"I played in an alumni game two years ago and I still haven't recovered," he said last week. `Independent town'
Palmyra is a stable community of about 7,000, where people say things like "I knew his father" or "his mother went to school with me," and where moving away often means buying a house in Riverton or Cinnaminson.
Meddling is particularly unwelcome.
"It's a very independent town," said Leather, who has reason to know.
After serving as mayor for a decade as a Republican, Leather fell out of favor with the powerful Burlington County Republican organization over the light rail line, which he opposed and the party supported.
He ran for re-election as an independent and handily won.
"People here don't like outside influences," Leather said.
And it doesn't matter, apparently, which party those influences might be coming from.
What bothers Riley, a borough resident, most about the tapes from what he's read, he said, is "other counties trying to have some pull or power in Burlington County. Their interests aren't the same as ours."
Butler, the activist, is not nearly as restrained in talking about what she's gleaned from the tapes.
"I'm disgusted with these supposedly higher-ups," she said. "The little people don't mean a hill of beans to them." Unpopular stance
Until he went against the Democratic Party over its new county chairman, Gural said "going to work at JCA was one of my favorite things in life."
But that changed when he endorsed Moorestown attorney Ted Rosenberg for Burlington County Democratic chairman in February 2000 over the party's pick, attorney Lou Gallagher, the eventual winner.
From that point on, he said, he was under pressure from his employer to fire Rosenberg as Palmyra solicitor.
Norcross wanted Rosenberg out and JCA needed Norcross, Gural says he was told.
That November, after Rosenberg opposed the nomination of attorney John Harrington to be a Superior Court judge, the pressure increased and Gural was told that his job was on the line.
"I went home, grabbed an old Sony pocket recorder, put some batteries in it and went to work," where he said the threats from his bosses were repeated and recorded.
He went to an attorney who set up an appointment with two agents for the state attorney general.
"All I did was play the tape," Gural recalled. "They asked me to leave the room. They spoke with their superior on the phone. When I came back in, they said, `If you agree, from this point forward you're working as our agent.' " Wearing a wire
"The next morning agents showed up and wired me and off to work I went."
Wearing the recording device was one of the most difficult things he ever did, Gural said.
"It's an overwhelming experience. They turned it on at 7 in the morning, turned it off at 5 at night. Every thing I did during that time was recorded."
He couldn't turn the device on or off, he said, and couldn't leave it anywhere because it would be illegal to tape record conversations he was not a part of.
He said he did not fear discovery because the recording device was sophisticated, about the size of a credit card slipped into his shirt pocket, and would "look like a piece of junk" if it ever fell out.
But he quickly came to feel that "I was in over my head" and by the time the ruse of delaying Rosenberg's appointment (designed to curry the confidence of those he contends wanted the solicitor punished), "I had had enough. I wanted out in the worst possible way."
Members of his family have responded in different ways, he said.
His parents have been "supportive but don't quite understand it," he said.
"My wife is sick over it. She's proud, but wished it never happened."
"Totally unimpressed," he said. "It's just something Dad did. No big deal to them."
Asked if he would do it again, Gural pauses, then gets tied up in a couple of false starts - "I would never . . . I would avoid . . ." before saying simply, "No."
"I stuck my neck out for law enforcement and they turned their back on me."
Reach Richard Pearsall at (856) 486-2465 or firstname.lastname@example.org
April 7, 2005
Norcross again denies alleged contract-rigging
Staff Courier-Post VOORHEES
Lawyer contends he misspoke; other Democrats remain mum
Democratic power broker George E. Norcross III, speaking through his attorney, continues to deny he ever met with a Voorhees committeeman and told him to hire a Moorestown company as the township engineer, something the Democrat boasts of having done in the recently released "Palmyra tapes.'
"He misspoke,' said Norcross' attorney William Tambussi. "There was no meeting.'
The tapes, which were released last week, were part of 330 hours of recordings made in a state investigation into alleged political corruption in South Jersey.
On Jan. 3, 2001, Norcross is heard on a secretly recorded tape describing a meeting at which he told Voorhees Committeeman Harry Platt to hire JCA as the township engineer. This despite an interview process that had the township committee leaning toward another firm, Norcross said on the tape.
". . . we said to Harry, wait a second, JCA was going to be the engineer of record. I don't care about your f------ review process,' Norcross said.
Also present at the meeting with Platt, according to Norcross, were Camden County Clerk Jim Beach and Assemblyman Louis D. Greenwald, D-Voorhees.
The remarks have set local Republicans humming with calls for investigations and resignations.
On Wednesday, Tom Booth, chairman of the Voorhees Republican Club, joined the chorus of Republican protest by calling for Platt's resignation as a committeeman "in light of the disclosure of Platt's involvement in the apparent rigging of a Voorhees Township contract.'
Meanwhile, the Democrats mentioned appear to be reluctant to talk.
Platt, Beach and Greenwald have all failed to respond to numerous phone calls and messages left over the past two days seeking comment.
This is the second time Norcross has asserted he "misspoke' in connection with the recordings. Last week he said he misspoke when he said he had breakfast with U.S. Sen. Jon Corzine at the senator's "home,' when it was actually in the senator's "hometown.'
Tambussi said he had no further details to offer about the conversation regarding the Voorhees engineering contract.
Voorhees Township Committee appointed JCA as its engineer on the evening of Jan. 3, 2001.
Earlier that day Norcross offered in some detail, in the remarks caught on tape, his version of how the decision to hire JCA came about.
He was speaking to John Gural, then a Palmyra councilman, and Mark Neisser, then president of JCA and Gural's boss, who, like Norcross, was unaware he was being recorded. Gural secretly recorded the conversation for the state Attorney General's Office.
The contract was originally going to go to another firm, Norcross said, because three "do-gooder' committeemen wanted to name another firm "based on the interviews.'
But at the meeting attended by Platt and the others, Norcross said, he set Platt straight that, regardless, "JCA was going to be the engineer of record.'
Gural went to the attorney general in December 2000 with his concerns that he was being pressured to fire borough solicitor Ted Rosenberg by Norcross and other Democratic leaders unhappy with Rosenberg's outspoken opposition to their leadership.
The pressure to fire Rosenberg was being exerted through JCA, which had an interest in pleasing Norcross to obtain government contracts, Gural alleges.
The recordings involving Norcross were released by the attorney general last week as the result of a suit filed by Rosenberg.
The attorney general is appealing an order from Superior Court Judge John Sweeney to release the entire 330 hours of recordings made by Gural, but decided to release those involving Norcross because the Democratic power broker asked that they be released.
Gural, who wore the device daily throughout the business day, estimates that 10 to 15 hours of the recordings are relevant to the investigation.
The investigation produced no indictments in connection with Gural's allegations that he was first threatened, then offered bribes.
Gural and Rosenberg contend that release of the recordings will demonstrate a cover-up on the attorney general's part.
Reach Richard Pearsall at (856) 486-2465 or rpearsall@courierpost online.com
April 8, 2005
Elected officials must take tapes seriously
Boss Norcross recordings create serious doubt about New Jersey government. So why are officials protecting Norcross instead of taxpayers?
As if the close-up view of the profanity-ridden, ego-stroking power plays that pass for politics in New Jersey weren't bad enough, now state residents have to deal with elected public officials passing the whole thing off as no big deal. Or, worse yet, not responding at all.
If these public servants -- paid to take care of the best interests of New Jersey taxpayers -- really think the actions of South Jersey Democratic boss George E. Norcross III as captured on the recently released portion of the "Palmyra tapes,' isn't important, perhaps they should find new jobs outside the public sector.
It is a big deal when an unelected individual orders around a public official, as Norcross can be heard doing to Palmyra Mayor John Gural. Norcross leaned on Gural, a councilman when he secretly made the tapes in late
2000 and early 2001, to get rid of a political enemy.
It is a big deal when Norcross laughs that another politician, Assemblyman Louis Greenwald, D-Voorhees, is getting a job with an engineering firm, but that he won't be doing much beyond finding government contracts for the firm.
It is a very big deal when Norcross uses his influence to make someone he considers to be a "f------ piece of s---' a Superior Court judge, as he did with John Harrington. Harrington was nominated by four governors over a 10-year span before Norcross decided to get rid of a problem by supporting him. Soon after, he was approved by a 33-3 vote in the state Senate.
And it is deeply disturbing when Norcross describes his part in rigging a contract between a friendly engineering firm, JCA of Moorestown, and the township of Voorhees. Norcross' lawyer said Norcross misspoke when describing the incident. His attorney has used that explanation a number of times recently.
After hearing all this, officials ought to do everything they can to distance themselves from this living, breathing example of what's wrong with New Jersey politics.
Instead, some elected representatives are trying to soften the blow on Norcross.
"He's a great friend who has done great things for South Jersey,' Greenwald said this week.
State Sen. John Adler, D-Cherry Hill, spoke in the same vein.
"It isn't reflective of the people I've dealt with in government or politics,' he said. "I've seen good things from the people on those tapes.'
We have to wonder why these officials have not expressed equal concern over whether these recordings are eroding constiuents' faith in government.
Certainly Norcross has done much good for South Jersey. Before Norcross, the region was continually given short shrift in Trenton.
But that doesn't come close to excusing actions focused solely on gaining more power for his party. Norcross has clearly shown himself to be a detriment to good, open government. He certainly has furthered the appearance that the state is governed by a ruling elite.
With that hanging over his head, it becomes more and more disconcerting that some politicians are willing to publicly support him while his words erode public confidence and trust.
Posted on Mon, Apr. 11, 2005
Residents make voices heard as township looks at growth
Plans for a Wal-Mart have met with protest. A master plan's progress is being watched carefully.
By Edward Colimore Inquirer Staff Writer
Call it growing pains.
Last week, hundreds of Voorhees residents rallied to protest the proposed construction of a Wal-Mart at Echelon Mall. They hoped to persuade the township planning board to reject a site plan.
And last month, residents sharply criticized the board for not giving the public enough time to comment on a draft master plan, which would guide development in Voorhees for six years. A new hearing was set for April 20.
From the undeveloped land on busy Route 73 where a hospital chain wants to build a state-of-the-art facility to the Echelon Mall redevelopment, township officials, community activists and residents are wrestling with a host of proposals that promise to remake Voorhees.
Mayor Michael Mignogna said he saw the challenges ahead as "opportunities."
"The master plan is a document that involves a lot of time and public effort," he said. "The draft is a point of discussion - with draft the operative word."
Lori Volpe, president of the Voorhees Environmental and Recreational Alliance, said the master plan was especially important because the township was at a crossroads, where wrong choices could lead to overdevelopment and right ones to a better quality of life.
"The draft is on the path to overdevelopment," said Volpe, who was also a member of the Route 73 Corridor Review Team, which offered land-use recommendations. "Residents are fed up with the quality and amount of development, and there has been a public outcry.
"Residents want roads that are manageable and preservation of open space. They want buildings with character and charm - not mega-stores like Wal-Mart, BJ's and Lowes. They want appropriate economic development."
Joseph Coradino, retail president of the Pennsylvania Real Estate Investment Trust, which owns Echelon Mall, said Wal-Mart was appropriate for the site and that approval of the site plan would open the way for three "junior department stores" to locate at the mall. He declined to identify them.
"We're going through a process of putting together a plan while trying to be sensitive to residents' comments," Coradino said, adding that the latest plan called for moving Wal-Mart farther from the road, eliminating a drive-through pharmacy, and adding more tree buffers.
"The one thing that Wal-Mart does is bring other tenants," he said. "Without them, Echelon could be a real horror story."
The mall is 56 percent occupied, and half the tenants will come up for lease renewals this year with many others to follow next year, Coradino said.
"We could end up being virtually empty without Wal-Mart," he said. "We projected that we will be 17 percent occupied - and would be unable to pay the real estate taxes. We would need to appeal. That could mean higher taxes for others."
Jim McHenry, who lives next to the mall and organized Smart Action for Voorhees and Echelon, said he and neighbors in his group opposed the Wal-Mart because it would worsen traffic and add another big-box store.
He proposed the development of a downtown with a variety of businesses, possibly a retail center such as Peddlers Village in Lahaska, Bucks County.
Mignogna, who sits on the planning board, said he could not comment on the mall redevelopment while it was being considered.
But the mayor said he looked forward to addressing the issue, fine-tuning the master plan, and talking with the hospital chain, Virtua Health, about developments along the Route 73 corridor at Dutchtown Road.
The draft master plan's zoning would allow for a hospital, medical offices, restaurants and a conference center, which could include a hotel. The hospital could rise 10 stories.
Volpe and other community leaders said they did not oppose a hospital on Route 73 as long as traffic and environmental concerns were addressed.
Voorhees solicitor Stuart Platt said that the elements of the draft master plan "are topics of discussion," and that planning board members "are trying to do the best for the community, trying to look ahead."
Volpe, who earlier blasted the board for not reserving more time for comment on the master plan, said many residents, including some who rallied last week against the Wal-Mart, "feel some elected officials are not hearing their voices."
"There is a perception that they are answering to interests other than the residents' - so the people are coming out to take back their town," she said.
Last week, Tom Booth, chairman of the Voorhees Republican Club, called on former Mayor Harry Platt - now a Township Committee member - to resign because of alleged involvement in the rigging of an engineering contract.
In a secretly recorded 2001 conversation released by the state Attorney General's Office, Democratic power broker George E. Norcross III said he had met with Platt to make sure an engineering firm was chosen over another for a contract.
Norcross' attorney said that the statement was "hyperbole" and that there had been no meeting with Platt. Platt was unavailable for comment.
"We live with the consequences of decisions made by public officials in whom we placed our trust," Volpe said. "While we may not always agree with these decisions, we should be able to trust that they have our best interests at heart."
Contact staff writer Edward Colimore at 856-779-3833 or email@example.com.
Posted on Thu, Apr. 07, 2005
On tape, Norcross says he steered town to hire firm
The disclosure led to a call for Harry Platt, now a committeeman, to resign.
By Edward Colimore, Inquirer Staff Writer
In a secretly recorded conversation, Democratic power broker George E. Norcross III was telling how he had helped an engineering firm, JCA Associates, get a municipal contract.
Norcross said he and two political allies had met with then-Voorhees Mayor Harry Platt in 2001 to steer the contract away from Schoor DePalma Inc., which had been deemed qualified for the work.
The hiring of JCA indicated that the process had been rigged, said Voorhees Republican Club chairman Tom Booth, who yesterday called for the resignation of Platt, now a township committeeman.
"In light of the recent reports, I fail to see how Harry Platt can continue to faithfully serve the people of Voorhees," said Booth, 35, a Haddonfield lawyer and Voorhees resident.
Platt did not return phone calls seeking comment yesterday. Voorhees solicitor Stuart Platt, no relation, also was unavailable.
Norcross' attorney, William Tambussi, yesterday characterized the taped conservation as "hyperbole" and said the meeting with Platt "never took place." He said Norcross always had South Jersey's best interests at heart.
On the tape, recorded Jan. 3, 2001, and released Thursday by the state Attorney General's Office, Norcross talked with two JCA executives about the use of municipal contracts to reward political allies.
One of the executives was secretly recording the conversation for a state probe of political corruption.
"We said to Harry: 'Wait a second. JCA was going to be engineer of record. I don't care about your [expletive] review process.' "
JCA later received a one-year contract.
Booth said yesterday that the award of the work "makes you wonder how many other 'deals' were made or are in the process of being made at the expense of the Voorhees taxpayer."
Contact staff writer Edward Colimore at 856-779-3833 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Proposal for Wal-Mart hits snag
Thursday, April 14, 2005
Voorhees errs on redevelopment zone
By BARBARA S. ROTHSCHILD
Courier-Post Staff, VOORHEES
Township committee members have learned that the redevelopment zone created around the ailing Echelon Mall is invalid, throwing a wrench into a plan by the mall's owner to locate a freestanding Wal-Mart there.
Township solicitor Howard Long told officials the redevelopment zone ordinance contained a procedural deficiency.
"There's an obscure provision in the redevelopment law which requires that the ordinance contain a provision amending the township zoning map," he said. "That's a mandatory requirement. Because it's not in there, I think the ordinance is essentially void."
The zone was created to offer tax breaks and low-interest financing to recruit and retain mall tenants.
Township committeeman Harry Platt said the Pennsylvania Real Estate Investment Trust, which owns the mall, has two options: Reapply under the current town center zone, which would require variances, or wait to see whether the committee reworks its ordinance for the redevelopment zone, making sure all i's are dotted and t's are crossed.
"It would take a few months to do that. If the defect is corrected, it will take time," Platt said.
The invalidation affects only the Wal-Mart application. No others are pending, Platt noted.
The vacant Sears building will be occupied by three tenants who do not require variances to move in.
Pennsylvania Real Estate Investment Trust, known as PREIT, wanted to locate the Wal-Mart on the site of the vacant J.C. Penney building, which would be demolished. But a hearing last week was postponed, PREIT Services LLC President Joseph Coradino said.
"We have not formulated a strategy for going forward at this time," he said. "We're still focused on development at Echelon and see Wal-Mart as an integral part of that. We will be talking about this in the next day or so."
"We're optimistic we're going to prevail. We think it's important for the mall and the community," he said.
Residents who oppose the Wal-Mart hope the township will return to the drawing board and address the mall's future in a revised master plan.
"Our feeling is that the reason for the redevelopment zone was to roll out the red carpet for that Wal-Mart. I don't think PREIT will want to continue without it (the redevelopment zone) being in place," said resident Jim McHenry, a leader of Smart Action for Voorhees and Echelon, or SAVE, a grass-roots group.
"If they fast-track this, there are going to be a lot of unhappy residents," McHenry said.
Wal-Mart planned an initial store of 147,505 square feet, but PREIT was seeking approval for a total of 230,000 square feet to allow expansion if warranted.
"Putting something there that competes with the mall isn't smart growth. It will help PREIT, but it won't help the mall. It will be the final nail in the merchants' coffin," McHenry said.
Platt said the township committee would consider residents' concerns if it addresses the issue during its Monday work session.
WHERE TO CALL
Voorhees Township Committee will hold its next work session 7:30 p.m. Monday in the municipal building at 620 Berlin Road. The public may attend but there will be no public hearing portion. To find out whether the invalid redevelopment zone is on the agenda, call the township administrator's office during business hours Friday at (856) 429-7174.
Reach Barbara S. Rothschild at (856) 486-2416 or email@example.com
Posted on Thu, Apr. 14, 2005
Official says mall ordinance is void
A plan that would pave the way for a Wal-Mart must be amended, a township solicitor says.
By Edward Colimore, Inquirer Staff Writer
A redevelopment zone ordinance that would have helped clear the way for a new Wal-Mart and reconfiguration of the Echelon Mall is flawed and must be considered void, Voorhees Township's solicitor said yesterday.
Solicitor Howard C. Long Jr. said an amended ordinance would have to be passed if the township wishes to have a valid redevelopment zone.
The new measure will have to include a provision, missing from the current ordinance, requiring the redevelopment zone to be shown on the township's official zoning map.
The invalidation of a redevelopment zone is not expected to affect plans for Echelon, since zoning already allows the current retail use, Long said.
But it could lead to more public hearings on the controversial redevelopment, allowing Wal-Mart opponents another opportunity to voice their concerns to local officials.
The Wal-Mart proposal for Echelon Mall has stirred debate in Voorhees for months. Hundreds of residents have held rallies to oppose the plan, citing the traffic problems it could cause - and their preference for a Main Street-style shopping district.
"There are a couple things the township can do," said Long. "It can enact another ordinance that rectifies that [flaw] or do nothing because there is already an underlying zone that applies, which I believe would allow the [planned] use."
The mall was declared a redevelopment zone in the fall of 2003, opening the way for possible low-interest financing through the Camden County Improvement Authority as well as state economic development aid.
The Township Committee unanimously approved a redevelopment plan last November. It provided guidelines, focusing on setbacks, parking and landscaping.
Township Mayor Michael Mignogna said yesterday the members of the committee have not discussed the solicitor's findings and have not reached any decision about what action it will take.
Lori Volpe, president of the Voorhees Environmental and Recreational Alliance, a nonprofit environmental group, said she sees the invalidation of the redevelopment zone ordinance as "another opportunity to review what's been done, to go back and change the past."
Volpe said the "Township Committee should use creative ways" to redevelop the mall. She and other Wal-Mart opponents would like to see a town center, including a new municipal building and a block of stores as well as the Strawbridge's and Boscov's department stores already at the mall.
"If necessary, take the mall through eminent domain and sell it to a developer who will follow the vision of the community," she said. "There are remedies."
Contact staff writer Edward Colimore at 856-779-3833 or firstname.lastname@example.org.