Even while the borough moves to re-zone the property as a redevelopment area, talks continue. Meanwhile, some citizens have formed a nonprofit to fight the deal.
By Matt Skoufalos
Despite his application to transform the Bancroft property into an inpatient addictions treatment facility being twice denied by the Haddonfield Zoning Board, real estate developer J. Brian O’Neill said he is committed to executing his vision for the 13-acre parcel of land.
O’Neill, the CEO of Recovery Centers of America, Inc. (RCA) said his corporation has “a civil right” to occupy the property, despite the objections of neighborhood groups, the borough government, or anyone else.
His argument is based on provisions of the Affordable Care Act, which treats addiction as a behavioral disorder that must be covered by medical insurance, and the Americans with Disabilities Act, which prohibits discrimination against those handicapped by mental illness, such as addiction.
“This isn’t an opinion,” O’Neill said. “This is factual law. To deny our ability is the same as discriminating against someone who is African-American or Hispanic or Chinese. It’s not a civil dispute; it’s breaking the law.”
RCA, which describes itself as “the first nationally branded provider of substance abuse and recovery support services in the country,” has a goal of enrolling 1 million patients at a chain of treatment facilities it is building across the country.
But along the way, the developer has been fighting opposition from the very neighborhoods where the problem he is out to cure resides.
“The same politicians that are putting a game face on to help people suffering from addictions are the ones preventing us from coming into these towns,” he said.
In Haddonfield, local leaders have explored the idea of re-zoning the Bancroft property as a redevelopment area, thus preventing it from being used to house a rehabilitation facility. At the same time, they have been in talks with O’Neill to negotiate an outright purchase of the property. To date, neither approach has amounted to much, but the borough Planning Board is convening a special meeting October 29 to discuss the re-zoning—a move O’Neill promised to challenge in court.
“If the town is willing to settle with us, they know the terms,” he said. “They have had two opportunities to do that, and they have not shown the willingness to meet those terms.”
While talks continue among the developer and elected officials, borough residents are organizing to keep the issue at the forefront of local discussion.
The better to formalize its opposition to the RCA proposal—and to solicit donations for a legal challenge—a handful of Haddonfield residents has formally incorporated as the nonprofit Haddonfield Citizens Group (HCG).
The sole purpose of the group is to “support the borough in getting control of this property,” said HCG Trustee Lindsay Vest.
“We are not against drug treatment facilities by any means, or even in Haddonfield,” Vest said. “We just think that this facility next to our high school is not a good fit.”
Incorporating demonstrates a stronger commitment to the cause, Vest said, but it also allows the group to fund-raise. HCG has hired land use attorney Jeff Baron of the Voorhees-based Baron and Brennan, PC, built a website, and begun to advertise its cause. If the borough is able to acquire the Bancroft property, HCG bylaws dictate that the group will dissolve and will donate any remaining funds to the Haddonfield Educational Trust.
Although HCG is not opposed to situating an addictions treatment facility anywhere within the borough (except at the Bancroft site), the group did not offer an alternative location. Vest and her fellow trustees Virginia DeLong, Jeff Tucker, Travis Colley, Chris Maynes, and Charlie Chelotti also “feel very strongly about not weighing in on how the land is used,” only that it be put to “a tax-neutral or tax-positive use.”
Neither does HCG have an opinion on what price Haddonfield taxpayers may consider too steep to purchase the land.
A $12.5-million Board of Education referendum to purchase the land was rejected in 2013; by January, residents may vote on a $51-million school bond that includes no money for land acquisition.
Vest also wouldn’t hazard a guess as to taxpayers’ appetites for new debt in a town that just retired its outstanding debts by selling off its water and sewer infrastructure.
“As the issues evolve, that’s something we will discuss within our group,” she said. “At this point, there may be terms. We don’t know what any price tag may be. Right now we’re going with what we’re formed in order to do.”
HCG will host a “Rally for Responsible Development” on the steps of Haddonfield Borough Hall at 6:45 p.m. October 29, prior to the 7:30 meeting of the Haddonfield Planning Board, to mobilize “an active, informed population of supporters,” Vest said.
“We really want to show the commissioners that we support their efforts,” she said.
‘It’s time to take action’
Haddonfield Mayor Jeffrey Kasko said the elected body is grateful for that support, particularly given the lengthy and complicated history of the Bancroft property.
“It’s difficult sometimes,” he said. “Obviously, 100 percent of the taxpayers aren’t going to agree on anything really, whether it’s the purchase of lands, turf fields, school facilities, or even the proper way to develop houses or tear-downs and zoning.
“People like to talk about stuff and debate,” the mayor said; “but at this point, with this particular question of Bancroft, we’ve had enough years of discussion, enough years of debate. We’re going to probably move ahead with a redevelopment plan.”
Some of the details of that plan will be discussed at the October 29 meeting. The borough intends to “probably purchase the land, or as much of it as we can,” Kasko said, “and I don’t foresee us doing a referendum.”
“You’re never going to get to a total consensus,” the mayor said. “You’re just going to have to do what you think is best and have a majority of the town supporting you. Don’t drag it out. It’s been long enough. Now it’s time to take action.”
“But we’re not there yet,” he said. “There’s some things we can’t meet that [O’Neill] wants. If we do a redevelopment plan and he’s still the owner of the property, he wants to have some say about that. We’d like to purchase it and have the borough have total control.”
Any sale will also turn on whether the borough can create a financing package to pay for the property, which Kasko said would likely draw upon grant aid, funds from the Camden County Open Space Preservation Trust Fund, and some bonding.
“It’s not just a number,” he said; “it’s how we’re financing it.”
If a deal can be brokered, the next step for the borough will be to outline a redevelopment plan for the property, which must be designed with the needs of the Haddonfield school district as well as its COAH obligation in mind. Kasko said the government has reached out to developers to gauge market interest in the parcel, and cautioned that “there’s nothing concrete yet.
“But we’re getting close,” he said. “In the next month or so, we’re going to unveil a proposal.”
The mayor said that he agreed with O’Neill that whether at inpatient or outpatient facilities, addictions counseling is “obviously a need that’s all around the area.
“I know what Mr. O’Neill wants to do, and it’s a good thing,” Kasko said.
“Siting a location is obviously a problem.”