Property rights under siege in Burlco seat, Coalition warns

Numerous rowhouses in the Mount Holly Gardens were bulldozed after town officials declared the area blighted and asked property owners to move out so a new housing development could be built. Ed Hille/Staff Photographer)

The Castle Coalition, a non-profit that fights eminent domain abuse nationwide, is turning its attention to Mount Holly - again. 

In recent years, the coalition lobbied for 27 property owners whose homes were being bulldozed by the township so that a new housing development could be built.  The mostly poor Latinos and African Americans who lived in the Mt. Holly Gardens sued for discrimination and the coalition filed a brief supporting their position.  That case settled last year as it headed for a hearing before the U.S. Supreme Court. 

Now, a mixed zone with businesses and homes is about to be designated as another redevelopment area that would be subject to condemnation.

The coalition, which is part of the Institute for Justice, a public interest law firm, last week sent a representative to meet with the property owners in that zone to let them know their rights.    

 "I went door to door and met with property owners, and some didn't know what was going on," said Christine Walsh, a director of activism and coalitions for the Institute for Justice.  "A lot of education needs to occur," she said, explaining that the designation often sets the stage for a township to condemn private property in order to make way for a new development or business. 

The town council is considering designating a 30-acre area in Burlington County's seat "in need of redevelopment."  About 120 properties would be affected.

Mayor Rich DiFolco said the plan calls for improving the appearance of the zone, where about a dozen buildings are vacant and dilapidated.  At a planning board meeting Tuesday, attended by about 30 homeowners, he said that the council is "not looking to tear down properties" that are maintained.  He said council is exploring putting in streetscaping and enticing developers to the area.