CAMDEN, NJ — An ordinance to be considered by the Camden City Council next week will determine whether the eminent domain process is used to acquire land for expansion of a city charter school system.
Camden’s Charter School Network — a collection of four schools covering pre-K through 12th grade: Camden’s Promise, Camden’s Pride, Katz-Dalsey Academy, and Camden Academy Charter High School — hopes to add to its main campus an early childhood education center serving the Biedman and Cramer Hill neighborhoods, according to an agenda document.
The school would be constructed adjacent to the 879 Beideman Ave. campus in East Camden on a site encompassing the four properties at issue, the subject of a second reading for council on Oct. 8.
Before that hearing, council used a caucus meeting Tuesday night to address concerns about the charter network’s plan and ensure all other options were exhausted to obtain the properties along Lois and Hayes avenues.
Jim Lex, chief operating officer of the Camden County Improvement Authority, which works with Camden’s Charter, told members of council that school officials made efforts to reach out to the property owners.
For one of the lots, Lex said the owner likely passed away, while two other parcels, known as lots 9 and 10, "have significant judgments against them." He said the charter network could not locate the property owner of the remaining lot.
"So they've tried to get (the land) through the process. It's not like they hadn't gone out and tried to find the property owners," said Lex, who noted the lots have been "historically vacated." Camden's Charter already owns another four properties connected to the land.
"We understand the sensitivity. Because of the sensitivity, because they're vacant, that's the reason for the request," he added.
The sensitivity referred to the type of reaction that comes upon hearing of the use of eminent domain, which was noted by Councilmember Brian Coleman (Ward 2) and others on council.
Coleman said it can appear that the property is not sold for what it's worth, but what the government decides to give for it.
"And that's the concern here," he said.
Lex said the charter network has expressed working with the Camden Redevelopment Agency and going through the necessary steps of getting appraisals. School officials, he said, aren't "looking for it to be given to them."
"They're looking just to be able to acquire," Lex said. "We spoke with the CRA, they understand what the lots are needed for, what the process is."
Councilmember Felisha Reyes-Morton (Ward 4) asked for someone to notify the two families who live next to the proposed project site about the changes coming and how they will be affected, if it was not already done.
Lex said that he was not sure if the charter network had spoken to the public yet but that it will happen. The project location has shifted from other blocks and lots since the plan was first formulated about two years ago, he said.
"I will promise you that they will reach out to the public," he said.
Reyes-Morton, who attended schools near the Biedman neighborhood, also noted the need to make open, green space a priority in the plan.
Lex referenced an early rendering shared in the council chambers that shows the plan calls for construction of a playground on what is currently a dirt lot. Additional space left reserved or untouched could be requested at the charter network's eventual presentation before the city planning board, council professionals said.