Cheers, Not Many Jeers for Haddonfield's Bancroft Purchase
Residents generally support plan, but question the turf field component.
A three-hour public meeting Wednesday produced a majority of opinions in favor of a proposed $16.8 million public purchase of the Bancroft property on Kings Highway East.
The one caveat that threaded through several comments was an objection on $2 million of the deal for an artificial turf field at the high school football stadium.
A crowd of about 100 turned out for the first of three public meetings this month on a proposed deal for the Haddonfield school district to buy the nearly 19-acre Bancroft property on Kings Highway East next to the high school. The land represents an oasis of possibilities for development in this nearly built-out, 300-year-old town.
"I think it was a respectful conversation," school board President Steve Weinstein said after the meeting. "There were legitimate questions, but to get every answers means you may never get to a deal."
School board and borough officials gave a 40-minute PowerPoint presentation at the beginning of the meeting. Weinstein rolled through details of the proposal, including a $12.2 million purchase price of the Bancroft property and total project costs of $16.8 million. The price tag includes the demolition of existing buildings on the site—which have been the home of Bancroft Neurohealth, a center for the developmentally disabled and acquired brain injuries, for nearly 128 years.
Turf inclusion raises concerns
Two million dollars of the cost is earmarked to build a new turf field, turf the existing football field and build new concession stands and rest rooms. That was the part of the plan that drew the most heat Wednesday.
"This has been a long haul and I'm proud to be here tonight," said Kim Custer, a borough resident who has long campaigned to buy the property to preserve open space. "This is where we wanted to be and I'll be the first person out there cheerleading for that property, but the $2 million proposal for turf is extremely controversial. We've worked too hard to lose this over a turf field. Get the acquisition and lets worry about the development of turf or grass another time."
John Moscatelli, 44, a chemical engineer who lives in the 400 block of Spruce Street, also had problems with the turf field.
"Why take 20 years to pay for turf field that will only last eight years?" Moscatelli asked the boards. "I might not vote for it if that is in there."
A bond referendum is scheduled for Jan. 22, 2013, on the proposal. The bond will be paid over 20 years, with the typical Haddonfield property owner paying $241 yearly for a total of $4,820 per household.
Weinstein defended the turf field portion of the proposal.
"There are a lot of people who are in favor of turf fields, but none of them are here tonight," Weinstein said. "I think the speed of the citizens' proposal has created some issues, but the goal there was to know if that money was coming in before we got to a referendum."
Weinstein was referring to a private fundraising drive to raise half of an estimated $1 million cost to install artificial turf at the football stadium and an adjacent borough-owned field. The school board and commissioners in May fast-tracked commitments to pay half the cost for the turf if the private, residents' group can raise $500,000. If that happens, $800,000 could be subtracted from the $16.8 million bond.
But even that reduction wasn't enough for one resident.
"The town is $500,000 short in tax revenue from households that can't pay their taxes now," said Sue Heidel, a Hawthorne Avenue resident. "I ask why would we buy Bancroft and raise our taxes more if we know these same households can't pay their taxes now?
"I question that in this unstable environment if purchasing property that only raises our taxes in the years to come is a sound decision. To hear if we don't bite now, we'll never have the opportunity again doesn't make it the right thing to do."
Haddonfield’s average property tax of $12,088.88 is nearly twice the state average at $7,776, according to the state Department of Community Affairs. Haddonfield has the second highest average property tax bill in Camden County. It trails Tavistock, an exclusive enclave at the tip of Haddonfield, enclosed mostly in an exclusive golf course. Haddonfield's property tax bills are 27 percent higher than Voorhees, $8,777.41, third in the county.
BOE and borough officials argue that having the Bancroft property publicly owned is key to preserving open space, and allowing for school and recreational fields expansion. They also argue that this may be the last parcel of its size for large-scale development for the public good in this nearly built-out town.
Borough commissioners are scheduled to vote on the letter of intent to buy the Bancroft property at an action meeting Monday, July 23 at 7:30 p.m. at the Municipal Hall. The BOE will meet on July 31 to vote on the purchase agreement. Both are public meetings and will provide further opportunity for comment.
Officials stressed that this is just the first step in sealing the deal. The most important vote will be a public referendum in January on the entire $16.8 million proposal.
"Having a referendum is as democratic as it gets," Weinstein said. "We have a responsibility to set what happens in the future. We have to grasp this opportunity for generations to come."