Haddonfield Mayor Jeffrey Kasko said the borough is in ongoing talks to buy the site. Developer J. Brian O’Neill said RCA will file its formal application for the rehab center this week.
By Matt Skoufalos
For all the questions asked and answered at an emotionally charged, town-hall-style meeting between Haddonfield residents and developer J. Brian O’Neill last week, there was no indication of the process changing anyone’s course of action on either side of the Bancroft development question.
On Friday, Haddonfield Mayor Jeffrey Kasko said that borough leaders are continuing to try to broker a deal for the 19-acre parcel, while O’Neill said he would be filing his formal application for the Recovery Centers of America (RCA) project with the borough this week.
Irresistible force, meet immovable object.
Haddonfield Commissioner John Moscatelli said that comments voiced during the meeting were “very similar” to those the commissioners have heard publicly and privately from borough residents on the issue.
“I certainly don’t think Mr. O’Neill’s opinion was changed by the meeting, and I certainly doubt that a lot of residents’ minds were changed either,” Moscatelli said. “People got to air some opinions, and that’s worthwhile.”
Neither was he caught off-guard by a group of Haddonfield Memorial High School students who said the proposed project wouldn’t be introducing drug risks to a community they feel is already battling such problems.
“I’d be very surprised if many of the residents in town thought there were no drug issue [in Haddonfield],” Moscatelli said. “It certainly didn’t surprise me.
“There’s no doubt in my mind that when I was in high school back in the mid-80’s that we had a drug problem,” he said.
“I don’t know that anybody really thought that we were in a bubble here and those problems didn’t affect us.”
Haddonfield Superintendent Richard Perry wasn’t surprised, either—but he was proud of his students for speaking their minds.
“What they expressed isn’t anything that people don’t already understand about every high school in the nation,” Perry said.
“They are student leaders in the building,” he said. “They were open and honest that night. I admire their courage and their honesty. That’s what we’re all about at the high school.”
The interests of the school district in the Bancroft property–as either its long-term neighbor or prospective tenant–are perhaps more keenly felt than any other stakeholder in the conversation, and Perry said the district has retained an attorney and a planning expert to represent those interests at board meetings that may follow from the RCA application.
Although O’Neill offhandedly said Wednesday that RCA could be willing to explore a partial sale of the property to the district, Perry clarified that no such offer has been presented.
“It sounded like we’ve been having discussions with him, which we have not,” the superintendent said.
“If Mr. O’Neill ends up not going in there, we’d like to be part of those discussions in terms of how much the school system could receive.
“[But] that’s several steps down the road,” he said.
“We have to take a look at exactly how this facility would impact the school and the community before we would express any interest in coming to a certain parcel.”
‘The win-win for everybody would be for us to get all of it’
From the perspective of the borough government, “the win-win for everybody really would be for us to get all of it,” Kasko said.
“The missing piece is that [O’Neill] has to have an alternative site to go to,” he said. “That’s what people are working on; to see if he can find a site.”
The mayor described talks among the borough, Bancroft, and RCA as “ongoing,” with “no hold-up.
“There’s just a lot of back-and-forth,” Kasko said. “I’m still very hopeful that we can work something out.”
When asked whether he foresees any scenario in which O’Neill is able to execute his vision for the property in Haddonfield, Kasko said the idea hadn’t actually occurred to him.
“If I’m going to be honest, I’ve been so fixated on trying to see if we can work out something else that I really haven’t given it much thought,” the mayor said.
“I’ve been trying to get a way for [O’Neill] to site his facility, a way for Bancroft to move, and a way for us, the residents, to get the property and have some control.”
If a deal cannot be brokered, neither side is optimistic that a long and potentially expensive legal battle isn’t what lies ahead.
“There’s no question about that,” Moscatelli said.
“My guess would be that no matter how the zoning board rules, it’s going to end up in court; no matter if it’s approved or denied, somebody’s going to appeal that.”
Despite the confidence with which O’Neill has asserted his position, Moscatelli said attorneys for the government believe they’re not dealing with “an open-and-shut case.
“The legal advice that we’re getting is not that ‘you have no case,’” he said, “but we’re not hearing that ‘you’re absolutely going to win.’”
On that point, both the borough and the developer see eye-to-eye.
“I don’t like long legal fights,” O’Neill said. “The only ones that win are the lawyers.”
Asked for his take on the meeting, the first thing O’Neill mentioned was how taken he was “with the composure and poise of the high school kids.
“Most of the Haddonfield residents were very respectful; realized that we have a need,” he said. “I enjoyed the dialogue. I think I got a big chunk of my message across, which is good.”
Although O’Neill affirmed that he plans to “keep moving forward” on the site, he also reinforced his openness to selling off a portion of the land to the Haddonfield school district.
“If they wanted to buy it, we would consider selling it,” he said. “I would consider that a win-win. It would be up to the [borough]to decide that.”
Until such time as any of these scenarios emerges with some clarity, there will be unrest in the borough of Haddonfield.
The anxiety that was so palpable on Wednesday is unlikely to be dispelled by anything less.
And yet, even if the borough successfully acquires the land, that acquisition is only likely to create further dissolution among residents about how best to use it, making the eventual fate of the property a seemingly everlasting question.
“Where is there any kind of relief? I don’t know,” Moscatelli said.
“This property has been a hot-button issue for 10-plus years now,” he said. “Even if the borough comes into possession of it, there’s still going to be a lot of varying opinions as to what the borough should do with it.”
“No matter what is going to be proposed being put over there, there’s enormous emotion,” he said. “We had it with our referendum, with the housing proposal, and now with this facility. Until whatever’s settled is done, and we’ve all moved on, I still see that angst being out there.”
When asked whether he had any words of comfort for Haddonfield residents in the interim, Kasko asked for “folks to be patient, and [know]that we are working on it.
“When something new comes along or something unknown, there is fear, and I understand that,” he said. “Whether it’s all 100-percent justified; it is what it is. There’s fear about it and anxiety about it and they want to get to an answer quick.”
O’Neill’s assessment was more succinct.
“Next time God gives you the opportunity to buy something, you oughta buy it,” he said.