Expect to see billboards, including one with a changing sign face, looming over the stretch of Route 42 running through the township.
During a special meeting Wednesday night, the township planning board unanimously granted preliminary and final approval to a proposal by Cooper Health System to place three billboards—each up to 60 feet high—on land it owns along the state highway.
Two of the billboards will have static signs, and the third will be digital, with rotating messages.
Cooper owns an undeveloped 113-acre parcel north of College Drive between Route 42 and the Black Horse Pike, to the west of Blackwood campus.
Susan Bass Levin, president of Cooper Health System Foundation and a former Democratic mayor of Cherry Hill, told the board that taxpayers will benefit from the installation of the potentially lucrative billboards.
For each of the first five years after the billboards are erected, the township will get 12 percent of the net revenue from sign rentals. Over each of the ensuing 10 years, the township gets 6 percent of the revenue. In each case, the maximum benefit to the township will be $45,000 per year, Levin said. And, she said, the township will get 10 "flips"—which could be used for announcements or public-safety messages—on the digital sign every 24 hours for 15 years.
Levin said that in keeping with the redevelopment agreement for the property, the billboards will not advertise tobacco products, nor will any of them remain blank for more than 60 days at a stretch.
Although Cooper obtained the approvals through Gloucester 42 Associates, a limited-liability company it created, the health system has no intention of getting directly into the billboard business.
In essence, Cooper will sell the approvals it received Wednesday night to an outdoor-advertising company that will construct the billboards and rent space on them.
Cooper has not yet chosen the company, Levin said.
Despite the potential revenue flowing to the township, one former planning board member criticized the decision to allow new billboards on that stretch of the highway.
In 2006, a redevelopment plan adopted by the township limited the number and size of billboards allowed on the property. But, this past August, at Cooper's request, council amended the plan and eased those restrictions, allowing for up to four billboards.
"This is a contradiction that flies in the face of this previous, prudent planning," said Dennis Palmer, a past board chairman who left his seat in June because he wasn't reappointed by Mayor David Mayer.
"We don't want to see Gloucester Township turn into the Expressway going into Atlantic City," Palmer said before the meeting, referring to the plethora of billboards crowding the stretch of highway leading into America's Playground.
Mayer did not return a call Wednesday afternoon seeking comment on the proposal.
Mayer is closely allied with powerful South Jersey Democrats led by George E. Norcross III. Norcross is chairman of Cooper Health System's board of trustees.
Planning Board Solicitor Michael McKenna acknowledged during the meeting that per the board's general policy, it was unusual for its members to grant both preliminary and final approval to a project in one night.
But, he told the members before they voted, "It's not a building, it's not retail. It's a sign. You don’t need to see (the application) twice."
Cooper's township property is known as the Interchange Redevelopment Area. When it was first moved forward for redevelopment in 2006 under the name "Cooper Medical Services," the Interchange Redevelopment Area was to be anchored by a medical facility affiliated with Cooper University Hospital.
But Levin said the plan has since changed.
"It will be private development, and a smaller portion will be some type of medical use," she said of future phases. The billboards, she said, "are a necessary way to bring in revenue to offset the cost of the development project."
Cooper will also benefit from a new $5.8 million interchange that Tuesday in the township. Exit 7B provides traffic from Route 42 with direct access to the health system's township property, and to the college.
The new exit is the first full interchange added to the state highway since it was constructed in the 1950s, county officials said.