Looking back: Cherry Hill Year in Review for 2015

Members of the Cherry Hill community didn’t always agree when it came to hot-button topics in 2015.

When the year began, Cherry Hill Township was still fighting to preserve Woodcrest Country Club. Cherry Hill teachers and the Cherry Hill Board of Education spent the entire year negotiating a new contract. Residents spent a good portion of the summer protesting the opening of a puppy store. Parents and school officials rallied to get turf fields installed at Cherry Hill’s high schools.

The past year saw lots of discussion and deliberating, but also many resolutions and actions. Despite their disagreements, community members found a way to come together and work to resolve their differences.

Before the calendar flips over to a new year, let’s take a look back at Cherry Hill’s biggest stories from 2015.

Township reaches settlement on Woodcrest Country Club

With the passage of two resolutions, Cherry Hill Township Council ended a more than two-year long dispute over Woodcrest Country Club.

On June 8, council approved a pair of tentative agreements with Cherry Hill Land Associates LLC, Fair Share Housing Center and the Camden and Burlington County branches of the NAACP to resolve litigation regarding Woodcrest Country Club and affordable housing in the township.

In one agreement between the township and Woodcrest Country Club owner and operator Cherry Hill Land Associates, the township purchased the development rights of the property and announced the property would be kept as a golf course. CHLA would continue to operate Woodcrest Country club.

“It will permanently preserve the Woodcrest Country Club property,” Mayor Chuck Cahn said.

Cherry Hill Land Associates, an affiliate of First Montgomery Group of Marlton, purchased Woodcrest Country Club in May 2013 at a bankruptcy auction for $10.1 million. CHLA proposed to build more than 800 affordable housing units on the site and sued the township for the right to build on the property. The township opposed any development.

The township in return would work with CHLA on redeveloping underutilized sites such as the Hampton Road and Park Boulevard redevelopment areas in the future.

“There are a number of existing developed but underutilized properties in Cherry Hill that need to be redeveloped and revitalized,” Cahn said. “This is where we should promote development, not our open space.”

In the agreement with Fair Share Housing Center and the NAACP, the township was given a judgment of compliance and repose. The settlement states Cherry Hill has satisfied its affordable housing obligations and prevents developers from demanding the right to develop on a specific property in the future.

In return, Fair Share Housing Center is permitted to move forward with a 54-unit affordable housing development in the Short Hills neighborhood.

“As one of the most expensive and most segregated states in the country, expanding access to high-quality housing in thriving neighborhoods is the key to fighting inequality and advancing civil rights in New Jersey,” said Kevin Walsh, Fair Share Housing Center’s associate director. “This settlement will help hundreds of families achieve the dream of sending their children to good schools and improving access to good-paying jobs.”

“Access to high-quality housing with access to transit and good jobs is one of the most pressing civil rights issues facing New Jersey,” said Colandus Francis, president of the Camden County NAACP. “This settlement will help thousands of lower-income families in South Jersey.”

Both settlements were approved in New Jersey Superior Court in July.

Teachers contract standoff enters second year

The entire 2015 calendar year came and went, yet the Cherry Hill Education Association still did not have a new contract finalized with the Cherry Hill Board of Education.

For the first half of 2015, negotiations continued on regular basis between the two sides. Little news came out of the negotiations, other than the two sides were still communicating.

On June 1, negotiations broke down. Two days later, the board of education released a statement on the Cherry Hill Public Schools’ website, saying the CHEA negotiating team walked out of the June 1 session after the board extended an offer that included an increased first-year salary, a fourth-year salary offer and the withdrawal of several proposals.

At the June 9 board of education work session, hundreds of CHEA members came to express their displeasure with how negotiations proceeded. CHEA President Martin Sharofsky said he was unhappy with the board’s statement.

“Your posting was against everything that we had agreed upon,” Sharofsky said. “What goes on in the negotiations rooms should stay in the negotiations room.”

The CHEA negotiating chair said the board’s salary offer remained below the county average, and CHEA felt it would not be able to reach a settlement.

“We could not see any compromise from the side of the board to help a settlement be reached,” said Jay Young, negotiating chair for CHEA. “This is why the meeting ended.”

Steve Robbins, chair of the board of education’s negotiating committee, said the board’s salary increase was very close to the county average, and the board was willing to compromise and increase its salary offer further if it received additional concessions from CHEA.

“Instead of engaging in those discussions when we were willing to increase our offer, the association abruptly walked out,” Robbins said.

Following the June 1 meeting, negotiations were declared at an impasse, and a formal hearing before a state-appointed fact-finder was scheduled for September.

The two sides did not meet during the summer. When students and teachers returned to school in the fall, frustration over the lack of a new contract for the teachers began to grow.

A new page named “Parents for Cherry Hill Teachers” appeared on Facebook on Sept. 2. In just a few days, the page received more than 1,000 likes and became filled with posts from frustrated parents who wanted to see an end to the impasse.

Robert Weaver, the father of a Cooper Elementary first-grade student, started the page to give parents a central location to communicate and organize events.

“Parents have been posting on the page or sending private messages,” Weaver said. “They began saying, ‘why don’t we wear black shirts like our teachers do and rally.’”

Students and parents began to speak frequently at board meetings, expressing their displeasure about the cancellation of some student activities.

“Activities that are run by voluntary teacher participation are by the choice of the teacher, even when the contract is settled,” board president Carol Matlack said at a September meeting. “Some teachers have made a choice at this point not to volunteer. That is their right to choose, and the board cannot direct them to do otherwise.”

After not meeting for a few months, CHEA and the board met again in late October. A few weeks later, recommendations from state appointed fact-finder Thomas Hartigan were made. Both CHEA and the board agreed to accept Hartigan’s suggestions.

The board agreed to accept the recommendations once it heard back from CHEA about a procedural issue involving the district’s compound drug management plan. On Dec. 7, the two sides agreed to draft a resolution to the issue and move forward with writing a new contract based on the fact-finding recommendations. CHEA and the board of education are expected to review and vote on a new contract in the near future.

“I’m glad that we’re moving forward toward a settlement,” Sharofsky said at a Dec. 8 board of education meeting.

“We look forward to signing a contract and bringing negotiations to a close,” Matlack said.

Puppy store remodeled into adoption center for rescue dogs

Teachers’ contract rallies weren’t the only gatherings in Cherry Hill this year. Throughout the summer, groups of residents were protesting outside a new pet store named Pat’s Puppies.

Cherry Hill resident and animal activist Alan Braslow led the group, saying the store was likely selling dogs coming from puppy mills.

After months of protests, store owner Pat Youmans had enough. He approached Braslow in September and asked what could be done to end the protest. Braslow said he had an idea to transform Pat’s Puppies into something completely different.

“The initial thought was never to shut the store down,” Braslow said. “The goal was to get the store to change its business model.”

Pat’s Puppies closed in September and then re-opened in late October as P&T’s Puppy Love Adoption Center. Instead of selling dogs from commercial breeders, the center now accepts dogs from rescue organizations in the United States and is making them available to area residents for adoption.

“I wanted to turn over a new leaf,” Youmans said. “I wanted to try something new that hadn’t been done before.”

The center is a not-for-profit organization. To keep the center open, adoptions fees ranging from $200 to $600 were set, with all of the money going toward the organization’s expenses.

“We knew that a rescue model store, with the community’s support, could be a good business model,” Braslow said. “We need to get the community to understand they need to support this type of effort.”

The puppies offered for adoption at the store came from organizations from all over the United States. The first batch of dogs came from places like Tennessee and Puerto Rico.

Shortly after the adoption center’s opening, Cherry Hill Council approved a new ordinance banning the operation of stores selling dogs and cats from commercial breeding facilities. Businesses may now only sell dogs and cats obtained from either rescue organizations or animal care facilities.

Braslow is hoping adoption centers such as P&T’s continue to open in other areas of New Jersey, and he is working with other municipalities to ban the sale of commercially bred animals.

“There are 30 more puppy stores in New Jersey, and we’re going to go after each and every one of them,” Braslow said.

Turf fields at Cherry Hill East and West get the green light

After hearing feedback from parents and community members upset about the state of the sports fields at Cherry Hill High Schools East and West, Cherry Hill school and township officials finally took action in 2015.

In February, a board of education-formed athletics facilities committee presented a proposal to the Cherry Hill Board of Education’s strategic planning committee where the school district and township would team up to install turf on the football fields of both high schools.

In the proposal, the township and school district would split the cost of the project. The fields would be used for football, soccer, field hockey and lacrosse. The fields would be open for Cherry Hill residents to use when the high schools were not using them.

The plan had plenty of support from township and school officials from the beginning.

“We think there’s value in helping our schools to preserve their infrastructure,” township director of communications Bridget Palmer said.

“We feel very strongly we should accept the proposal and install the turf fields,” Cherry Hill East Principal Lawyer Chapman said.

After months of discussion between the school district and township, the project was approved in early fall. The township is managing the construction process. Construction is scheduled to begin in the spring, and the fields are scheduled for completion in time for the 2016 fall sports season.

Both the school district and township are also discussing a second phase of the project as the calendar turns over to 2016. Phase two would include the installation of lights, new bleachers and a field house at Cherry Hill East and a new parking lot and parking lot light at Cherry Hill West.

Mayor Cahn, Democrats re-elected in Cherry Hill Township

As they had done in every election for more 20 years, the Democratic Party swept the 2015 Cherry Hill Township mayoral and council elections.

Democratic incumbent Mayor Chuck Cahn and council members Brian Bauerle, Melinda Kane and Sara Lipsett all won re-election, defeating their Republican challengers.

In the mayoral race, Cahn defeated Republican candidate Philip Guerrieri Sr. easily, winning 72.4 percent of the vote. In the council election, Lipsett, Kane and Bauerle all earned between 20 percent and 22 percent of the vote. Republican candidates Nancy O’Dowd, Stephen Cohen and Rick Short earned between 11 percent and 13 percent.

Cahn attributed the victory to residents being happy with what his administration achieved during his first term in office. Some of the achievements he was most proud of were the Mayor’s Wellness Program, preservation of open space and keeping municipal taxes flat for four consecutive years.

“People didn’t know me four years ago,” Cahn said, “In the past four years, we’ve proven what we can do in this town.”

Lipsett felt the residents were pleased with how the township has been run when she spoke to people during the campaign process.

“It’s been clicking for the residents,” Lipsett said. “They’re really in tune with what we’re doing.”

Cohen said he wasn’t surprised he and the other Republican candidates lost the election.

“Cherry Hill is an overwhelming Democrat town,” Cohen said. “Unless and until there is a tipping point of taxes, building, school issues and safety, there will not be any change in government.”

Short ran for office for the first time this year, though he said he felt the same type of defeat when he fought to have the state’s red light cameras shut off in Cherry Hill.

“The voters in Cherry Hill have spoken, and, unfortunately for me, I ‘ve lost for a second time,” Short said. “The first time I was trying to get the Cherry Hill Council to shut off the cameras. I couldn’t convince Cherry Hill voters that I was the best person for a Cherry Hill council seat. I will continue my effort with more vigor, making sure red light cameras never return in New Jersey.”

Cahn, Lipsett, Kane and Bauerle will be sworn in to their new terms during Cherry Hill Township’s reorganization meeting on Jan. 4.

Cherry Hill Public Schools Superintendent Maureen Reusche resigns, Joe Meloche promoted to position

Members of the Cherry Hill school community were stunned on March 19 as Superintendent Maureen Reusche announced she would resign and leave her position at the end of the 2014–2015 school year.

Reusche, who had been in Cherry Hill Public Schools since 2007 and had been superintendent since 2011, resigned after being hired as superintendent of the Haverford Township School District in Pennsylvania. She took over the new position on July 1.

Reusche had a special connection with Haverford, having grown up there as a child.

“I think people are surprised,” Reusche said of the response from the Cherry Hill community. “But when they hear about the personal connection, the response is that it makes sense.”

The board of education immediately began the search for a new superintendent. A retired superintendent, Mark Cowell, was hired to serve as interim superintendent for the summer.

On Aug. 25, the board officially approved a familiar face as the next superintendent of Cherry Hill Public Schools. Joe Meloche, an alum of the school district and long-time Cherry Hill resident, was promoted to superintendent.

“I am excited and humbled by the opportunity to assume this position, and I am eager for the students to return to school and for the academic year to officially begin,” Meloche said when he was appointed.

Meloche had previously served as principal at Kingston Elementary School, Carusi Middle School and Cherry Hill High School West, the three schools he had attended as a child. In 2013, Meloche moved up to administration as the district’s director of curriculum. He was promoted to assistant superintendent for pre-K-12 in 2014.

Meloche said his love for education began while attending school in Cherry Hill.

“As a student in Cherry Hill, my connection to school flourished,” he said. “My interest was piqued by creative and talented teachers as the community provided the opportunity for the schools to thrive. Being a graduate of the system personally connects me to all of the students who are currently enrolled as well as the tens of thousands of graduates.”

A total of 26 candidates applied to be superintendent in Cherry Hill Public Schools. Meloche was selected among three finalists.

Severe storm leaves damage across Cherry Hill Township

On June 23, Cherry Hill and surrounding communities were caught off guard when a severe thunderstorm blew through the area, causing an immense amount of damage and leaving the vast majority of residents without power.

Between 6 and 7 p.m. that evening, a storm hit, packing a lot of rain, lighting and high winds. In the hours following the storm, traffic was gridlocked in multiple areas of the township due to downed wires and trees. A day after the storm, 33 percent of Cherry Hill residents were still without power, according to PSE&G.

Public works and Cherry Hill Police immediately jumped into action to assist in the aftermath of the storm. For days, public works crews were seen throughout town removing trees and other debris.

“Public works said they had removed approximately 125 trees,” Palmer said.

Cherry Hill Police did their best to set up safe traffic patterns where traffic lights were out and to block off roads where fallen trees and power lines created a hazardous situation.

“We tried to channel the traffic flow in the safest possible way,” Police Chief William Monaghan said.

Some residents had to deal with downed trees and damage on their own property. Cherry Hill resident Mark Pastoriza was one of those residents. Standing outside his home on June 24, he spoke with neighbors next to a large tree that had fallen during the storm and just missed landing on his home.

“My daughters were home,” Pastoriza said. “I was literally right around the corner when this happened. When I pulled up is when the tree came down. I saw the stump come up right there.”

The amount of debris in Pastoriza’s yard was significant, with the tree still laying uprooted on Wednesday afternoon. Fortunately, no was one hurt during the incident and his house suffered minimal damage.

“Everybody’s good,” Pastoriza said. “When the pine snapped, it shot forward and hit the front of the house. Where the gutters are, there’s a little bend right there, but other than that, everybody was fine.”

There were no reported deaths or serious injuries in Cherry Hill due to the storm.

Automated trash collection begins in Cherry Hill

Cherry Hill Township’s new contract with Republic Services of NJ came with a huge change in trash collection for residents.

On Sept. 28, council approved a new, five-year contract with Republic Services. The biggest change from the previous contract was a move toward automated trash collection for residents.

During the fall, residents received a new, 96-gallon trash bin. All trash had to be placed in the new bins and could not be placed in other bins. Automated collection began immediately once neighborhoods received the bins.

“As soon as you get your can, you’re ready for automation,” Palmer said.

There were no changes in regard to what went into the bins. Bulk trash is still collected separately curbside and yard waste is collected in a separate bin.

Township business administrator Lenore Rosner said the township expects to save $1.3 million with the new agreement. In the contract, the township is charged by how many tons are collected. Township officials believe the tonnage will be reduced with the new bins and automated collection.

“It saves the township a significant amount,” Rosner said.

Municipal taxes flat again, school taxes go up

Cherry Hill residents got familiar news when it came to their municipal taxes in the fall.

For the fourth consecutive year, municipal taxes remained flat. The flat tax rate has been a part of every budget passed since Mayor Chuck Cahn took office in 2012.

Cahn said the township has done a number of things to keep taxes flat, including streamlining the township’s internal operations, emphasizing economic development through finding new uses for underutilized sites and improving municipal services through smart investments in various departments. Cahn added the township has saved taxpayers nearly $5 million in the last four years through refinancing its debt.

“We’ve built a strong future for our community that includes a multi-faceted approach,” he said.

In the Fiscal Year 2016 budget council approved in September, the township increased its spending in road maintenance, vowing to focus on the area more in the future.

“We’ve allotted more than $8 million for this year’s road maintenance program,” Cahn said. “That is almost four times the amount when I first came into office. We hear it all the time about our roads. Now, we’re serious about it.”

Cherry Hill Public Schools approved its 2015–16 budget in September with a tax increase of $85.77 for the average assessed home of $223,500 in the township. It was an increase of 1.85 percent from 2014.

There were no cuts in personnel or education programs in the budget. The budget increased 2.51 percent from 2014 to $182.68 million. The increase took place despite no additional state aid. The district received just $12.95 million in state aid.

“That’s less than the $16 million that we receive in 2008 and 2009, but more than the $7.9 million we received in 2010 and 2011,” district business administrator James Devereaux said.

To help balance the budget, the district used $1.98 million from capital reserve.

“We’re leaving a little something on the table, just over $1 million,” Devereaux said. “This will be used to help 16–17 budget, unless there’s a compelling need for it in the meantime.”

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