Council approves warehouse amendment despite protests

Aggregate Energy program will be up for vote next November.

Cherry Hill council held public hearings regarding two ordinances on Dec. 7, one of which will create a Community Energy Aggregation Program that can allow the township to offer up to 100 percent renewable energy for residents in the next 10 years. 

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The program would have to be implemented within one year of the ordinance passing.  Since the measure was brought to council through petition, members  had three options: Approve it, reject it or do nothing. Council decided to take no action and let voters decide on the ordinance in a November referendum. If the measure passes then, the township will have to implement it. 

While some residents at the Dec. 7 hearings voiced their support for the ordinance, there were others who urged council to force the referendum. The top three concerns for residents were: a potential hike in electricity; difficulty in opting out as opposed to the ease of opting in; and the logistics of using cleaner energy, specifically how it has worked in other towns. 

Solicitor Howard Long clarified that he had studied the ordinance and the opt out function cannot be changed so interested residents can opt in. Councilwoman Carole Roskoph emphasized the importance of informing and educating people on opting out, as well as the need for more research.

“I think there’s a lot of questions we can’t answer right now, and I do think we need the time to answer the questions for residents who have them,” she said.

Councilwoman Jennifer Apell agreed, and posed a question about whether apartments were considered commercial or residential, because while residents would have to opt out of the program, commercial buildings have to opt in.

“If this passes tonight, (if apartments are considered commercial,) it doesn’t mean [residents living in apartments] will be able to get this renewable energy,” Apell noted. 

“It’s not a matter of if, but making sure we get the how right,” said Council President David Fleisher. “… It’s with respect for those who signed the petition who sent it to the initiative. 

“The voters will decide,’’ he added. “If it is approved, this township will marshall the resources and the time and energy that it takes to get it right.”

The second ordinance discussed at the meeting would amend the redevelopment plan for the Victory Refrigeration Redevelopment Area on Woodcrest Road. That would allow the 14-acre parcel of Victory East to be used for warehouse purposes rather than a commercial area for office use, retail or senior living community space. 

While council ultimately adopted the amendment 6-0, with Council Vice President Brian Bauerle abstaining, it was not without a lengthy discussion. 

Robert Melvin, a member of the planning board, explained that the decision to amend the usage came when it became evident the vacancy rates for office (28 percent) and retail (14.3 percent) were high, while industrial and warehouse vacancy were low (1.5 percent).

A number of residents expressed their opposition to the amendment, citing the lack of tax revenue from a warehouse, not taking advantage of the close proximity to the PATCO train station and environmental concerns about the noise level and potential pollution that may come from living near one. 

Resident Rita Margulis urged council to be “forward thinking” and compared passing the amendment with selling stocks in 2009, when the odds were low.

”It is 2009 in the office market, but that doesn’t take into account the fact that the office market, the senior housing market, the retail market, is going to be different,” she said.

During council comments, Roskoph explained that her decision to approve the amendment came after she considered the way lifestyles have changed in recent years.

“We will never go back to people working in offices like we had in pre-COVID, and I think that’s a good thing,” she said. “ … I understand the residents’ concerns, but I also think we have to be forward thinking about how we start thinking about spaces in Cherry Hill.”

Apell noted there were environmental perks to having the warehouse so close to the 295 highway, as less fuel would be used to travel and employees could take public transit. She also ensured that trees would be protected and that noise control was accounted for in the plan.

The next council meeting, previously scheduled for Wednesday, Dec. 29, has been rescheduled for Monday, Dec. 20, at 7:30 p.m, with the caucus beginning at 7. The session will be held in person and available on Zoom.

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