It truly began as a promising evening of civic engagement with local government officials. The town council meeting in Cherry Hill on Monday night was packed to capacity with a rough guess of three hundred residents filling council chambers. It was a standing room only event.
Residents offered public comment in opposition to ordinance 2016-13, which seeks to amend the B4 zoning capabilities.
More than a dozen brave, and well researched citizens spoke in high opposition to the amendment, since it would allow for 16 pump, 8 lane gas stations to be constructed on such sites. Many residents stated that they did not want to live so close to a gas station in general, let alone such large, traffic attracting gas stations in their already congested west-side neighborhoods. Others cited the health risks associated with living in proximity to benzene, a known cancer causing chemical found in gasoline.
Mr. Ravitz even showed up to oppose the ordinance, largely since it was assumed that the change in zoning was to allow a Costo location to open in the Garden State Pavilions / Race Track property, coupled with, perhaps, a mega-gas station. A Ravitz owned Shoprite is located within the Pavilions property. Mr. Ravitz also cited the illegality of “spot zoning”; a practice of rezoning with singular party benefit.
After the public comments ended, Mayor Chuck Cahn began by thanking everyone for their comments and concerns, yet cautioned the massive crowd of three hundred strong that they should be weary of what the vote was for. The Mayor suggested that the vote was to rezone B4 areas, not for a benefit to Costco. Immediately, the crowd erupted, with shouts of, “They don’t even care!”, and, “The vote was already made!”. The mayor tried to speak above the shouts, adding that there was much more to the vote than met the crowd’s eye, that the planning board approved of the change in ordinance, and that there may in fact be some fear mongering conspiracies afoot.
The council voted, and the ordinance was passed with one abstention. The crowd did not wait for the rest of the meeting to end, and left.
I stuck around for the post-voting public comment, because I really wanted the mayor and the council to listen to my concerns following the disaster I had just witnessed.
I began by thanking the officials for taking my comments and concerns, and by stating how disappointed I was. I told them that there were so many things that could have been done to prevent the mass exodus of residents from the chambers. I told them that they really did not have to push the vote through, right then and there this evening. The mayor and council heard from a unanimous crowd all in opposition to this one ordinance, yet they still voted yes. I told them that their actions, and belief that they knew more about the ordinance than the residents, did not in any way help to curb voter disenfranchisement.
The council could have voted NO, and pursued community meetings in order to better understand why residents were so opposed to the ordinance, and perhaps, if there were more things than what met the eye, community meetings would have been the perfect opportunity to squash misconceptions, conspiracies, and false information if any existed. That action would have kept the public involved in the political process. That would have allowed me, at the very least, to gain more trust in my local government. But that did not happen.
The mayor and council chose to not bother with alleviating concerns and misconceptions, and created a situation in which the officials were coming across as knowing better than the people.
Following my comment to the council, Council President David Fleischer encouraged myself and the other young people who were present to not become disenfranchised, and to keep voicing our concerns.
I totally understand, and most of all, I respect his words. I respect him even more for having payed the most attention to the other residents providing comments throughout the evening, something of which not all council members did. But it is important for him to understand how that comes across. Someone who not ten minutes ago voted against a crowd of three hundred passionate people, wants me to not lose hope?
Of course, I won’t, but it’s important to point that perspective out, all in my hope that the mayor and town council learn a few things for future meetings.
P.S. All while Cherry Hill seeks to add a fifth grocery store within a 2 mile radius, Camden City, a food desert, still needs some of those…
(Whole Foods on Kings Highway, Wegmans on Rt. 70, Shoprite on Rt. 70, and Walmart on Rt. 38) (Another grocer seeks to open across from Whole Foods on Kings Highways)