Cinnaminson business owner trying to fight off township’s bid to take over properties
In 2013, Cinnaminson Township officials designated four lots off of Route 130, south of Highland Avenue, for redevelopment.
Around the same time Thao Le purchased two of the four lots, which adjoined her kitchen and bath cabinetry business.
“My dream is to expand this building and to have a bigger showroom and warehouse so I can have better space to store our product,” Le said.
Le immigrated to the United States from Vietnam when she was 18. Her parents wanted her to be a teacher, but she wanted to become a business woman. She started her company in 2000 and invested in the two properties with the dream of growing her business. But a combination of financial concerns and the COVID-19 pandemic delayed those plans.
“I'm ready to take this down now and I want to get the permit so that I can build a nice beautiful building and I will do whatever the township require[s],” Le said.
But the township has another vision. It wants her to vacate the two properties.
For the last two years, Le has been fighting off the township’s efforts to usurp her properties via eminent domain. The two lots next to Le’s properties are the future home of a Chick-Fil-A restaurant.
Willingboro-based Delco Development, the project developer, said in addition to the chicken sandwich restaurant, there are plans for a 6,000-square-foot building, with enough space for at least three other stores.
“Chick-fil-A said there was a hole on the Route 130 corridor and this site fit their needs,”Delco Development CEP Tom Juliano said. “So, we went out and secured the property and started to get the entitlements.”
The township Planning Board approved the project during their May 2022 meeting.
Richard Hoff, the attorney for CFA Cinnaminson LLC, told the board that Le’s properties were going through a condemnation proceeding at the time.
Le said she was not aware of any such proceedings until after the township began the eminent domain process.
“They already grant a permit for the development,” she said. “They already award the developer to build Chick-Fil-A and three retail or four retail store[s] on my lot.
Juliano said his company, which is a part owner of CFA Cinnaminson, said Delco Development did not ask the township to use eminent domain to take Le’s properties.
“The township was doing it on their own for the redevelopment,” he said. “The properties are blighted [and it] was in a redevelopment zone before we were even involved.”
Securing Le’s properties is “pretty vital” for the Chick-fil-A project, according to Juliano. He said if the project doesn’t move forward within the next 12 months, all that will remain is flat land for the two lots that they own.
New Jersey’s redevelopment law can be good AND bad
Le’s story is not out of the ordinary.
Ever since the 2005 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Kelo v. City of New London, eminent domain has been used more often by local governments to aid redevelopment.
“What’s happened over time is this idea of public use has gotten watered down to a public benefit,” said Timothy Duggan, chairman of the eminent domain and property valuation group at Stark and Stark.
He said “fairly often” governments seize land for the benefit of a private developer.
New Jersey also has a redevelopment law that allows a municipality to designate an area for redevelopment if the majority of properties in a neighborhood are vacant and there is no interest from a private developer.
“You go in, you have a planner look at it [and they find] the buildings are substandard [and] they're falling down,” he said. “If they designate it as an area in need of redevelopment, then they could use the power of eminent domain to acquire the entire city block and then turn it over to a private developer to rebuild it.”
Duggan called it a “very good law, except it’s abused a lot.”
“It's private land takes from one person to another and if that person does not hire the right law firm and does not have the money to fight it, they gotta fold,” Duggan added.
Le’s properties are structurally sound
The two buildings that Le owns have been vacant since she took possession They have mostly been serving as storage.
“I always have a company and ourselves cutting the grass and picking up trash,” she said. “I also put some plywood to cover some windows [and] some doors so people don't try to get inside the building and try to steal equipment from me.”
The buildings are structurally sound according to an engineer Le hired for inspections.
“It just need[s] cosmetic, like ceiling tile, tricore, all of that,” she said.
Le also said she never received any violations from the township until this month, when she was slapped with 46 violations and an order to address them by Dec.1. She said the township attempted to take control of her properties while the legal process was still playing out. They have used intimidation tactics, she said.
In one of the videos Le recorded, she asked an officer on the scene why they were on her property.
“There’s court orders for why we’re out here,” the officer said.
“Do you have a court order with you,” Le asked. “I would like to see the court order.”
“I don’t have a court order, ma’am,” the officer responded.
Le described the experience as “terrifying.”
“When I told them that we are still on the reconsideration, then they change the subject and say that they come in here for the [safety inspection of] the building.”
Stuart Platt, Cinnaminson’s solicitor, said the township did not attempt to seize Le’s properties and that it was unaware of any redevelopment plans she had. Citing the litigation, he declined further comment.
On Wednesday morning, both Le and the township will be before the appellate division of New Jersey Superior Court. Le said the township did not need to use eminent domain to help Delco build the Chick-fil-A.
“I will work with the township and I will work with the developer,” she said.