A gadfly hopes to end a battle in Mt. Holly

Mayor-elect Richard Dow hope to close the fight over Mount Holly Gardens with fair payment to residents who have refused to move to make way for new building.
Mayor-elect Richard Dow hope to close the fight over Mount Holly Gardens with fair payment to residents who have refused to move to make way for new building. (ED HILLE / Staff Photographer)

As mayor, Richard Dow hopes to end bitter litigation over eminent domain.

Posted: January 03, 2013

For nearly two decades, Richard Dow was dismissed as a gadfly when he peppered veteran Mount Holly Council members with questions on how they conducted the township's business.

The feisty Brooklyn, N.Y., native, who by day wears a Verizon hard hat and detects leaks in telephone cables, said he believed local officials were mismanaging the affairs of the blue-collar Burlington County community - especially when they took preliminary steps to seize houses by eminent domain in the Gardens section.

That was before Dow inherited the 10-year-old legal fight, Mount Holly Citizens in Action v. Mount Holly, a case that the U.S. Supreme Court is considering whether to accept.

Scheduled to be sworn in as mayor Tuesday, two years after first winning a council seat, Dow is now in a position to end the litigation, which has stirred up a multitude of thorny issues - eminent domain, racial discrimination, unintended segregation, and a municipality's ability to redevelop a blighted area.

"It's such a quagmire," Dow, 48, said of the legal battle that erupted when the township decided it would demolish Mount Holly Gardens' 329 rowhouses - most of them occupied by low-income minority residents - and let a developer build market-rate single-family houses and townhouses.

"I want to negotiate with the homeowners down there," Dow said, referring to about 35 who have refused to move. "Eminent domain is not there to take a house to build a house. It's there for the greater good, to build a bridge or a highway."

Dow was elected to the five-member council in November 2010 as a political newcomer and spent the next two years as a minority voice that he said was ignored. Three newcomers allied with him won seats in the next two elections, giving the group the votes they need to change the town's course and end the costs of litigation.

So far the town has spent more than $1 million in legal fees.

M. James Maley Jr., the township's special counsel, has said that the residents were unreasonable and that talks would not be fruitful. Maley, who is also mayor of Collingswood, could not be reached for comment.

The redevelopment plan called for all the rowhouses to be demolished, and the previous council moved forward with it as a way to remove blight and crime from the Gardens. Several landlords and others took buyout and tenants moved away.

Dow argued that many of the homeowners had lived there for decades and were law-abiding citizens. They had paid off their mortgages and could not afford to move out with the $50,000, on average, that the town was offering.

South Jersey Legal Services filed a lawsuit on the homeowners' behalf, alleging that their civil rights were violated and that the town's action amounted to racial discrimination.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit in Philadelphia in 2011 ordered a trial to find out whether the town should rehabilitate the remaining houses, offer affordable new ones, or take other steps rather than displacing the residents. The council appealed the decision.

Dow, who is white, said he became especially concerned when the U.S. Department of Justice filed a brief suggesting the relocation of the Gardens' residents might violate fair housing laws because it resulted in unintentional racial segregation.

The Gardens had the greatest concentration of minorities in the town, and many of the residents could not find other affordable homes elsewhere in the community.

Maley, however, appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, arguing that municipalities have the right to redevelop blighted areas and that the statistical analysis purporting to show the impact on minorities was faulty.

Dow hopes to avoid further litigation if both sides can have a "good-faith" discussion and settle. He wants to offer residents replacement homes in the Gardens, or some other alternative to being pushed out of the township.

"They should get a house for a house," he said, suggesting that comparable units could be built on Joseph's Place, on the edge of the tract.

Olga Pomar, a lawyer with Legal Services, which represents homeowners, said the idea had not been proposed before. "The town has insisted that all of the homes come down first," she said. "It sounds good conceptually."

Pomar said she looked forward to working with the new council.

As for the appeal to the high court, Dow said, "We can't bail out of it," saying Legal Services had asked for "reparations" for those who were displaced and adding that that could cost the township too much money.

"We have to find a sweet spot that's fair to the residents there and the residents of Mount Holly," he said.

Pomar said that while Legal Services was looking for damages for some who had moved, "my anticipation is if clients got replacement homes, they wouldn't seek further damages."

Contact Jan Hefler at 856-779-3224 or jhefler@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @JanHefler. Read her blog, "Burlco Buzz," at www.philly.com/BurlcoBuzz.

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