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Suburban building projects mired in red tape

The redevelopment of commercial real estate in a Philadelphia suburb has been stalled by what prospective developers say is a mountain of bureaucracy.

Despite a vow that city officials made last year to help developers to rehabilitate property to pump new business into the town, just a few projects actually have been completed. The town's mayor last year put together a team of city officials and developers from nonprofit organizations to spur growth. While prospective commercial developers said the team has been accessible, they said there still is too much to hurdle.

While paperwork and appearances before planning commissions and zoning boards is not unusual, Camden, New Jersey, has an added problem: absentee landholders. Some of the properties that developers covet are vacant lands, and neither the city nor the developers have had luck in finding the owners in some cases, which has stalled some projects.

Added to the frustration for property developers is that when it comes to vacant lots, the city cannot use its Abandoned Properties Rehabilitation Act to invoke eminent domain to claim the property. Since there isn't a structure on the property, it isn't considered abandoned. The few developments that have occurred since the development team launched have used that law.

Another issue is the city has been slow to approve some projects that require another layer of approval. One developer, for example, wants to restore a 240-unit housing complex and is seeking a tax waiver. That developer still is waiting for a decision on a request for payment in lieu of taxes, which must happen before the project can move forward.

In another case, a pair of prospective developers want to build on land controlled by the Delaware River Port Authority. For that to happen, the Camden Redevelopment Agency must remove the oversight from the Port Authority and assign the new developers to the site. That has not happened yet, either, developers said.

Then there are the cases when the city cannot give final approval. A proposed fuel station, for example, requires federal approval. A charter school must get the OK from the state Department of Education. It is at times like this when it's smart to have an experienced real estate attorney in your corner.

Source: The Philadelphia Inquirer, "Red tape holding up redevelopment of Camden," Claudia Vargas, Feb. 21 2012

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