Evesham: A Battleground within a Battleground

Could an apartment building benefitting from a 2018 PILOT agreement become a lightning rod issue in one of Burlington County’s most strategic municipalities this election season?  Republicans are running on the platform of a municipal renaissance, but defending Democrats are calling it an example of cronyism, given the property is being developed by a local Republican powerhouse family.

Evesham Township, a municipality of some 45,000, is a battleground-within-a-battleground.  Democratic Mayor Jaclyn Veasy is seeking re-election, running on a ticket with two incumbent candidates, Patricia Hansen and Heather Cooper.  Running to unseat the incumbents are Republican mayoral candidate Dennis Mehigan along with Bonnie Olt and Michael Thompson for council.  Not unexpectedly, the former mayor, Randy Brown, has given his full support to his fellow Republicans and hosted campaign fundraising events for them.

Brown is not a defeated mayor.  A kicking consultant for the Ravens football team, in 2018, Mayor Brown announced he would not try to score another election goal and Councilman Steve Zeuli would take up the Republican mantle.  In a close election, Veasy bested her rival 52.04% to 47.90% and the township flipped from red to blue in the Trump mid-term year known as “The Blue Wave.”  In 2020, Biden won Burlington County’s largest municipality by a margin of 13 points—a good sign for Democrats.  The mood darkened a year later, however, Governor Phil Murphy only won Evesham by 2 points.  In the deadly atmosphere of the pandemic, the Blue Wave had seemed to sputter into a ripple.  Statewide, Jack Ciattarelli had come within a hand’s width of beating Murphy and returning Trenton to a Republican executive.

Evesham Township is part of the 3rd Congressional District, represented by Congressman Andy Kim who is in a tight re-election bid against Republican challenger Bob Healey.  CD-3 is among the most competitive New Jersey congressional races, behind the furious electoral tightrope walk that is CD-7.  Because of redistricting, CD-3 is slightly bluer than before, a surface benefit to Democrats but also inspiring a condition which is likely to spur a revaunchist Republican Party that is no longer hampered by the toxic effects of an incumbent Trump presidency.  The GOP can set its sights squarely on the Biden-Murphy arrangement and link that climate with the local elections across the district.  While Kim is generally perceived to be popular in Evesham, the Burlington Republican Party has been keen to hold the line and, if possible, regain seats lost wherever it can.

The Democratic allegations of cronyism with the PILOT agreement mentioned has its origins in the closing days of the Brown administration.  In 2018, between Election Day and swearing-in the new Democratic leadership, Evesham introduced and passed an ordinance which Democrats decried as a last-minute gift to Republican benefactors.  The ordinance is 31-12-2018 – “An Ordinance for the Township of Evesham Authorizing a Tax Abatement and Agreement Pursuant to the Provisions of N.J.S.A. 40A:21-1 et seq., With: Lenore Manor, LLC for Property Known as Block 4.10, Lot 5.01.”

The site is on East Main Street, Marlton, a leafy suburban street where the 150’ x 225’ lot in question is between a restaurant and a church.  The municipal government had rolled out a Redevelopment Plan to identify properties in need of rehabilitation back in 2014.  The plan for the site is to build a 23-unit apartment building with space for commercial applications as well.

The issue with Democrats is that Lenore Manor, LLC, which is developing the site and benefitting from a 5-Year-Plan is owned by Eleanor McKenna, the mother of realtor Mark McKenna, and John McKenna, a past councilman.  The McKennas are close with Brown, sources say, and assert that the process was rushed through the council.  According to the Evesham Township minutes, there is no record of comments raised by members of the public during the meetings with respect to the ordinance.

Burlington County listed the property assessed with a land value of $231,200 with $186,700 improvement for a net of $417,900 in 2018.  The following year, the land value was $231,000 with $10,000 improvement, and a net of $241,000.  As the old structure was demolished, there being no improvement, the land value (the net) held at $231,000 in 2020 and 2021.

Brown had touted redevelopment in Evesham as a great success for the township and defended the use of PILOT programs as a way “to leave the town in a better place.  As the PILOTs rotate out, the fully taxed revenue that will come in is higher than it is today,” he told South Jersey Biz in the closing of his administration.  He dismissed critics who claimed PILOT programs were used to draw developers.

The agreement with Lenore Manor states that in the first full tax year, no PILOT on the improved value will be due, except the baseline figure “for taxes which shall be paid upon said ‘baseline figure’.”  The agreement thereafter establishes the next year, 20% of the taxes due on the approved, improved value.  Then 40% the year after, 60%, and 80% in the fifth year.

If Lenore Manor should fail to pay the due taxes or PILOT payment, the agreement would collapse, and the assessment would be full, due, and payable retroactively.

Democrats denouncing a Republican-crafted agreement benefitting a Republican-aligned business and political power as cronyism is part of the ongoing struggle which defines the broader races in the district.  Should Evesham Township flip back to red, after having been in Democratic control, the loss of Burlington’s largest municipality would be a severe blow to Congressman Kim’s bid to return to DC and would also represent a major setback for the Democratic Party in southern New Jersey in general.

It is worth noting that in 2018, Veasy did not win by a landslide and while the township had seemed to reject Trump for Biden comfortably, scandal-marred US Senator Robert Menendez narrowly beat pharma executive Robert Hugin by 0.85%.  For the House, Andy Kim defeated Tom MacArthur with more breathing room, 56.71% to 42.71%.  Two years later, Kim was re-elected, beating David Richter.  Evesham Township delivered 17,199 votes to the incumbent and 11,656 to his opponent.  Broader, national atmospheres can have a profound impact on elections even on the local level, but fundamentally voter turn-out is also driven by the boots on the ground.  Veasy and her team, however, now have their own record to stand on and contrast against the Republicans who fight to get back into power.  Local-level Kim and Healey-backed machines operating in the township can be expected to highlight or spin the ethical considerations of PILOT-based redevelopment strategies, a potentially potent addition to the campaign toolbox as the battle continues towards November.

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