The borough will look to buy a shuttered bank building on Walnut Street after the NJ Department of Corrections refuses to waive compliance issues with its current police facility.
By Matt Skoufalos | March 28, 2023
Haddonfield borough commissioners took a step towards finding a long-term solution for environmental issues with the borough police station, authorizing $2.6 million towards the purchase of a property that could house the department.
The borough government voted Monday to appropriate $2.6 million towards the purchase of 1 Walnut Street, a former Bank of America branch that closed permanently in December 2021.
Of those funds, $2.47 million will be authorized in bonds or notes, and $130,000 will be used to make a cash down payment on the property.
The borough also authorized an ordinance seeking federal funding for the project through U.S. Senator Cory Booker’s office.
According to a property records search, 1 Walnut Street was built in 1984. Its value was most recently assessed at $1.675 million ($654,000 for the land and $1.021 million for the building) in 2022, netting $54,973.50 in taxes. The original deed, written in July 1983, was for $310,000.
Commissioners were, however, prevented from discussing terms of the deal in depth because of a confidentiality agreement associated with the negotiations. Mayor Colleen Bianco Bezich chalked it up to “the realities of that bid process,” which the borough described as an online auction in a January press release.
“We don’t have additional information that we’re able to share,” Bianco Bezich said. “As much as we might like to shout it from the rooftops, it’s something we’re not able to do.”
However, the mayor was adamant that, should the deal to purchase the bank property fall through, “moving the police out of [their current offices], regardless of site selection or acquisition, is a firm commitment.
“Our intent as borough commissioners is to give our police a facility they deserve,” Bianco Bezich said. “Since 2019, it’s been a priority to find a viable replacement [for their current facility].”
Although Haddonfield Police have operated in unsatisfactory working conditions for years in the dilapidated basement of Haddonfield borough hall, the principal motivating factor for a solution to be found now has been its lack of compliance with New Jersey Department of Corrections (NJDOC) standards for police stations.
Bianco Bezich said the borough has “consistently failed” those requisites for 20 years, and in 2022, NJDOC refused to grant it another conditional operating waiver without assurances of longer-term fixes.
Haddonfield has explored previously alternative solutions — expanding the building into the rear parking lot (2001), relocating into the borough post office building (2016), or adapting borough-owned properties like Boxwood Hall (2020) — but all were deemed unsuitable for one reason or another.
Haddonfield Borough Administrator Sharon McCullough said that the borough has already invested some $250,000 to $300,000 in patchwork fixes to the current property, exclusive of roof repairs.
Bianco Bezich said borough leadership are focused on “what’s really likely, what’s possible, and what shows the police that we’re paying attention and we value them.
“Even if they stayed in the basement, there’s a number of issues that couldn’t be resolved,” the mayor said.
These challenges include water intrusion, exposed utilities, cramped processing and holding locations, and the lack of a sally port for secure prisoner transport. Current conditions mean that detectives can’t interview multiple subjects simultaneously, or provide privacy for victims of domestic violence.
A lack of climate controls has led to “wood-destroying creatures growing on evidence,” Bianco Bezich said; moreover, the facility is not compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which could expose the borough to a lawsuit.
Beyond that, working in a windowless basement that was once converted into a bomb shelter means that radio and cell signals are spotty, hampering dispatch efforts. During the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, a lack of ventilation in the space forced officers to work from police vehicles rather than their desks.
Haddonfield Police Chief Jason Cutler said that his department isn’t alone in seeking annual NJDOC compliance waivers due to the out-of-date construction of their facilities.
“Policing is completely different from 100 years ago, when the building was built, until now,” he said.
“Even if there was great environmental conditions, there’s no space to operate.
“A lot of police departments that are in basements in the conditions that we are are going to start getting these letters,” Cutler said.
“D.O.C. is going to start coming down on that stuff. They’re not just picking on Haddonfield.”
The chief also said that the efforts of the borough government to find a long-term solution to these issues “is kind of the light at the end of the tunnel” for his department.
“It’s reinvigorated people in the department that the borough is looking to move us out,” Cutler said. “Everybody is ecstatic downstairs that this is the first step.”
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