More than a dozen residents of Cherry Hill's Kingston section rose before the Township Council meeting Monday evening, demanding to know if the town was secretly planning a new municipal building for Kings Highway, before Mayor Chuck Cahn assured them that the project was "not even at Stage One."
"We haven't even kicked the tires," he told the 50 residents who turned out for the meeting.
When pressed by opponents of the rumored project, Cahn told them that "if the residents of Kingston don't want a municipal building in Kingston, we won't build it there."
Several of the residents said they had become alarmed that a real estate agent had been making offers in recent weeks to buy homes in the neighborhood to make way for a new town hall and police building.
"You're not taking my house," Carmen Argentina, a 55-year resident of Dayton Avenue, told Cahn to audience applause.
Rob Connor of Princess Road said, "It really broke my heart, what's going on here."
Others said their neighborhood could not handle the traffic that a municipal building and police department would generate.
Cahn explained that the idea of renovating or replacing the 1960s-era municipal building was his own and "not a council action."
He said that about two months ago, he authorized a needs analysis of the existing building, but that "there's been nothing more than some conversation" with engineers and developer Howard Needleman, who owns two properties opposite the library on Kings Highway.
"It's very old; it's not meeting our needs. It needs some sort of renovation," Cahn said of the municipal complex on Mercer Street. "One option is moving to another location."
The Needleman property at 1101 Kings Highway E. is a four-story office building with a brown-aluminum-and-tinted-glass facade. A Needleman sign outside advertises that space is available.
At 1103 stands a buff-colored, one-story office building with a steep, angular roof, home to Cooper Medical Services and Women's Pavilion.
Several homeowners living adjacent to the buildings said the queries from a real estate led them to believe the project was in an advanced stage, perhaps already approved at some level.
"I had a Realtor knock on my door, and I also got a letter," Valerie Hudson, who cares for her elderly mother, said in an interview. "I told them I had no interest in selling."
Cahn said Needleman, whom he counts as a friend, told him recently that he was interested in selling the two buildings, and that Cahn told him he was looking for a possible site for a new town hall.
The two agreed that a new municipal building or an office complex at the site would likely need more parking space, which was why a real estate agent was asking neighbors if they wished to sell. Cahn said the agent was representing Needleman.
" 'If you want to buy them, go ahead,' " Cahn said he told Needleman. "But there was never any talk of eminent domain, or the township buying all those properties. We never even took Step One. All I asked was whether this site was feasible for what we need."
Earlier in the day, Rich Hoffman, a director of the Kingston Civic Association, had said most residents of the neighborhood had lived there a long time and were against the concept of moving.
"They also don't want the traffic and congestion that a municipal building would bring," said Hoffman, a Kingston resident for more than 30 years.