BUENA VISTA TOWNSHIP — An overflow crowd of more than 100 came out Monday night for a public hearing on the future of Richland Village, a section of the township where $3.1 million in grants and $900,000 in township bonds have been used to try to create a historic railroad-themed tourist destination on Route 40.
At about 10 p.m., the Township Committee voted unanimously to remove the buildings housing It's a Toy Store, The Patcong Valley Model Railroad Club and the U.S. Post Office and Richland Deli from a list of municipally owned Richland Village structures being considered for sale.
The action came after an almost two-hour public meeting in which those currently renting the buildings and their supporters spoke about the unfairness of suddenly putting their businesses at risk.
Earlier, Mayor Sue Barber read a prepared statement listing several township owned buildings in the village she said she would like the township to consider selling, including one that houses the Patcong Valley Model Railroad Club building on Route 40, stating the rents the township is getting of about $6,000 per year, per building, are not enough to cover the costs of maintaining them and fixing problems recently identified by an engineering firm.
Former mayor and current Committeeman Chuck Chiarello, who is opposed to selling or demolishing any township owned buildings, said before the vote that if buildings were sold grants that helped purchase or renovate them will have to be repaid.
“Any property you choose to sell, if purchased in part or whole by grant dollars, has to be paid back,” said Chiarello, who led the effort to create the village starting in 2004, and wants the township to keep developing it. “You can’t take grant money and turn it into cash.”
One faction of the all-Democrat committee is in favor of the municipality continuing to own and manage eight buildings there, five of which are rented to small business owners. The other faction is in favor of considering selling or demolishing the buildings.
Some residents spoke in favor of the township selling the properties, saying the municipal government had no business buying real estate. Others defended keeping the buildings and providing stable rental situations for businesses and the railroaders group.
Chiarello acknowledged before the meeting that tough economic times have kept the village from becoming a year-round success. Instead, he said, the Cape May Sea Shore Lines has only operated its tourist train from the Richland train station to the Tuckahoe station between November and December as the Santa Express, bringing in about 5,000 people in the holiday season; and the Patcong Valley Model Railroad Club’s miniature train display in another township-owned building brings in crowds only from November through January, when about 6,000 people visit it.
But he thinks Barber is driven to derail Richland Village by resentment after Barber allies Councilmen Richard Harlan and Peter Bylone, lost in June’s primary election. The winning Democrat candidates, John Williams and Steve Martinelli, campaigned with promises of returning Chiarello to mayor. They will run unopposed for two, three-year committee seats, in November.
“We won two seats in June, there’s a new administration coming in January,” Chiarello said. “The effort right now is to try to kill the project, put it up for sale and try to do something before the year is out. If it wasn’t spiteful we would take the time to talk and study our options.”
There are about14 businesses in the tourist section, five of which are in township owned buildings. Another three township owned structures are vacant and in need of repair, Chiaraello said.
Chiarello said he’s been approached by several business owners who want to move in to vacant township owned buildings, but cannot get cooperation from Barber about it.
For years township environmentalists have accused Chiarello of attempting to overdevelop areas of Buena Vista Township. They opposed him in 2008 when he received permission from the Pinelands Commission to allow businesses in Richland Village some leeway in water-quality standards. Later, they also opposed studying the possibility of building a small sewer-treatment plant in the village so businesses could expand as needed without relying on septic fields.
Chiarello has said it’s the one area of the township where development is possible, since Buena Vista is in the Pinelands and under great building restrictions.
In 2012 his opponents took over the committee and voted him out of the mayor’s position and Teresa Kelly out of the deputy mayor position. But he was re-elected handily.
His opponents have also criticized Chiarello for failing to get the proper permits for improvements at the train station at Richland Village and the Saw Mill and Michael Debbi parks, which resulted in the township being cited in 2009 for violations by the Pinelands Commission. They have said work in the area has been slowed since 2009 becasue of those violations.
The township must now redo some of the work and do additional planning for the sites before any new work can be done, Barber has said.
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