The Haddonfield Board of Commissioners on Monday unanimously approved a letter of intent supporting a public purchase of the Bancroft property.
The letter of intent launches a process that includes a $16.8 million bond referendum in January, if the borough school board also approves the letter in a meeting on July 31.
That is expected to happen.
The public purchase was largely driven by the BOE, which sees the Bancroft property next to the high school on Kings Highway East as a sort of manifest destiny.
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.
Some residents expressed concern about rising taxes for the purchase at the first of three Bancroft purchase meetings last week. Others raised concerns about $2 million of the $16.8 million purchase and development cost going to install two artificial turf fields at the high school.
Those same concerns resurfaced Monday during the three-hour meeting, but officials said this is a start to addressing some of those concerns.
"I've been doing this for 28 years and this is the first time I feel like we've got some direction on this," Mayor Tish Colombi, a veteran commissioner, said about the Bancroft property. "This is exciting, a huge moment. I think this is the rightest thing we've ever done."
Colombi voted "absolutely yes" on the proposal.
Strong feelings on each side
The vote came three hours into the meeting after lengthy public comment. Joe Haro, a retiree and long-time borough resident, delivered the first salvo.
"This is an embarrassment," Haro said. "I'm worried about middle-class flight from this town. We pay some of the highest taxes in the county and the taxes are going to keep going up from the borough, schools and the county. Our taxes went up here because there was $500,000 in uncollected taxes from people who can't afford to pay the taxes now."
Another resident told commissioners that "We can't keep expecting Phillies, Eagles and Flyers to move to our town who can afford the taxes."
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.
Some residents strongly supported the public purchase.
"I think this is a wonderful thing," said Linda McCarron, a Washington Avenue resident. "This is a once in a lifetime opportunity. How often does a property right next door to you go up for sale?"
Joe Del Duca, the leader of a resident's group called the Turf Field Committee that is raising private donations to pay for half of the $1 million cost to install artificial turf at the high school football stadium and an adjacent field, said he's confident they will raise $500,000.
"Installing one turf field is like installing two to three grass fields because you can use them all the time," Del Duca said. "I'm not going to tell you it's a perfect solution, but it’s the best solution."
The $16.8 million proposal to buy Bancroft will demolish the existing buildings, construct a new turf field and turf the high-school stadium field. If Del Duca's fundraising is successful, it could reduce the proposal cost by $800,000, the amount needed to install turf at just the football stadium. The $16.8 million will also likely be reduced by anticipated open-space funds from Camden County and the borough. There is currently just over $1 million in hand.
One resident said she would not vote for the proposal with the turf field component. Del Duca said he wouldn't vote for it without it.