The zoning board variance appeal process in Cherry Hill may be changing, but not just yet.
Township officials have been considering removing the option to appeal zoning board decisions to council rather than immediately heading to Superior Court, but struck the zoning variance amendment from the planning board’s agenda shortly before the Feb. 19 meeting to provide for more reflection.
Residents against the development of 152 apartments at the Haddonfield Lumber (ProBuild) site at the corner of Brace and Kresson roads believe the decision was specifically directed at recent proceedings.
Members of the civic association have been raising funds for legal costs to appeal the zoning board’s fall decision regarding the property to Superior Court following the postponement and later cancelation of a council appeal earlier this year.
“It is ironic that Mayor (Chuck) Cahn and Council President (David) Fleisher would have advocated taking these rights away and that the planning board was being asked to ‘recommend’ the take away,” Bob Shinn, a resident and member of the Barclay Area Civic Association, said in an email. “Why? Because our appeal of the Buckingham zoning board decisions and indeed our complaint to the Superior Court both gave as one of the reasons for our action was our effort to prevent the zoning board from ‘usurping’ the powers of the planning board and town council to zone by ordinance, rather than by variances issued by the zoning board.
“The proposal would not only have taken away citizens’ rights to appeal bad decisions to the council, but would also take away the council’s right to review, reverse, remand, affirm, or affirm such decisions with conditions,” Shinn said.
But according to Township Spokeswoman Bridget Palmer, there was no ulterior motive behind the decision.
“It’s certainly not personal in any way,” Palmer said.
The amendment was removed from planning board consideration to vet it internally and to evaluate the merits of keeping versus removing it, she said.
“Ultimately we feel that the appeal to council, that provision, really, it just politicizes the zoning process and prolongs the legal process,” Palmer said.
The operation was routine, she said, and there is no date planned for a reintroduction.
“If it is considered in the future, it will be re-noticed,” Director of Planning Paul Stridick said.
In other towns with the provision to allow appeals to council, generally the cases turn up in courtrooms anyway, Palmer said, and cost taxpayers more money in the long run.
When looking into zoning modifications, the township has the responsibility of balancing the interests of the whole community, she said.
Officials have been looking into the change since the fall, she said, and this is the third set of amendments in the last year to be brought to the board.
“We just want to make sure that the policy we put forth is sound policy,” Palmer said. “We’re always looking at the ordinances on the books.”
“This happened to be one of them,” she said.
The planning board at the meeting approved seven other amendments, none of which modify the master zoning plan, Lorissa Luciani, senior planner, said.
Still, residents are skeptical.
“You’ve got to pay to play if you want to have a say in Cherry Hill, and we already pay some of the highest taxes in the state,” resident Martha Wright said. “Why would Cherry Hill want to take away a basic right of ordinary citizens to have a say in the quality of their neighborhoods and Cherry Hill?”
And to Shinn, the last minute decision was peculiar in nature.
“If there indeed had been a consensus and it had been in the works for some time, I am a loss for understanding why they need more time to ‘mull it over,’” Shinn said.