Project hearing put off 3 times

Cherry Hill development foes are angry, frustrated

Community's size would double

`Not the way we want to run county government'

Cecil County

September 26, 2004|By Ted Shelsby | Ted Shelsby,SUN STAFF

CHERRY HILL - Citizens already angered over a proposed residential development project that would more than double the size of this rural Cecil County community were even more upset last week when they were repeatedly denied the chance to voice their opposition to the project.

Three times, the Planning Commission scheduled public hearings on one of the largest residential development projects in the history of the county.

Three times, the meetings were either canceled or the project was pulled from the agenda on short notice.

"That's frustrating," said Lindsie Carter, head of CHARGE - Cherry Hill Alliance for Responsible Growth and Expansion - a community group opposed to the project. "People took off from work to be there. These are working people; it's hard for them to get another day off. I think they were trying to keep the citizens out of the process."

And Del. Michael D. Smigiel Sr., chairman of the Cecil County delegation to the General Assembly, called the commission's conduct "unconscionable." He said it "gave the appearance of trying to pull a fast one on the public." He said citizens should be given at least a 15-day notice before any public meeting.

The events of last week add to the tension over a project that critics say would put a heavy burden on roads and public schools, and change the character of the area.

Windsor Development Co. of Freehold, N.J., in mid-June first unveiled plans for 922 residential units on a 146-acre peach orchard off Black Snake Road. Later that month, after acquiring an additional 31 acres adjacent to the orchard, the developer increased its plan to include 978 units.

According to Eric Sennstrom, director of planning and zoning, the developer's latest plan is for 749 units.

The Planning Commission was first scheduled to meet regarding the proposal at 10 a.m. Monday, said Sennstrom. He said that meeting was canceled when Tim Smith, one of the four commission members who planned to be at the session, had a conflict in his schedule and could not attend.

"That took us down to three, and we didn't have a quorum," Sennstrom said.

The meeting was rescheduled for Wednesday morning, with four of the six commission members scheduled to attend. But 90 minutes before the start of the meeting, commission member Keith Williams had to excuse himself because of a development at Aberdeen Proving Ground, where he works.

Again, there were not enough members present to do business, Sennstrom explained.

The meeting was then scheduled for Thursday morning. This time the developer asked to have the proposed Cherry Hill project taken off the agenda.

In a letter to Sennstrom, dated Wednesday, a lawyer representing the developer said opponents indicated that they did not believe the rescheduling of the meeting provided sufficient notice and that it presented a hardship for people taking off from work.

Albert A. Young, with the law firm of Brown, Brown & Brown in Bel Air, said the opponents were prepared to appeal any decision made by the Planning Commission on the ground that they were not given proper notice.

"So as not to encounter a legal challenge on that basis, my client has elected to withdraw the case from tomorrow's [Thursday's] agenda," Young wrote.

Sennstrom said the developer has indicated it would bring the project back to the Planning Commission at its next meeting, Oct. 18.

Phyllis Kilby, one of the county's five commissioners, called last week's sequence of events embarrassing.

"This is not the way we want to run county government," she said. Kilby said the commission is "supposed to be the voice of the people, and when you have a situation like this where meetings are canceled and rescheduled on short notice, I'm not sure the citizens are being well-represented."

A Planning Commission meeting affords citizens their first opportunity to speak publicly for or against development projects, such as the one proposed here.

"We don't have a policy or a procedure for rescheduling these kinds of things," Kilby said. "This should have taught us a lesson."

Kilby said it is hard to criticize the six members of the commission, who are unpaid volunteers.

"But we need to do something," she said. "The Planning Commission meetings are so important. That's where the community input comes into the system."

Some angry Cherry Hill residents see a deliberate attempt to cut them out of the process.

"I really feel that the Planning Commission was seeking to disenfranchise the people from participating in the decision-making process," said Robert G. Fritz.

Carter, head of the opposition group, said 45 residents of the Cherry Hill area had planned to be at the Monday meeting as a show of opposition to a project they fear will destroy the character of their small town and overburden public schools and roads.

"When that meeting was canceled, we had to scurry around to find new people who could attend Wednesday's meeting and read the speeches of those citizens that had taken Monday off from work but could not get off on Wednesday," she said.

"They are trying to keep us out of the meeting," Carter said. "They view us as an angry mob. But we are citizens of the county, educated people who have something to say."

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