Settlement vote on Mount Holly Gardens case is tabled

Posted: November 08, 2013

MOUNT HOLLY Less than four hours before the Mount Holly Council was expected to approve a settlement in a widely anticipated housing bias case pending before the U.S. Supreme Court, the vote was canceled.

The only explanation, issued by township solicitor George Saponaro through a brief news release Wednesday afternoon, was "all parties are working diligently to finalize the procedural aspects involved with resolving a highly complicated matter."

Last week, some of the parties were reporting a tentative settlement was reached - 10 years after a group of mostly minority residents in the Mount Holly Gardens first sued the township in a state Superior Court. The low-income residents had alleged that the town's plan to condemn their rowhomes and replace them with market-rate housing to rid blight had violated their civil rights. The case was moved to federal court five years ago.

A settlement would make it moot for the Supreme Court to hear arguments Dec. 4 to decide whether the residents have a right to trial to explore whether the redevelopment plan caused unintentional racial discrimination.

The township meeting was still held Wednesday night but it was brief. Council unanimously voted to table the vote. It also allowed the handful of residents who attended to speak.

Olga Pomar, a South Jersey Legal Services lawyer who has represented the 30 residents who sued, sat in the audience and later described the problem that is holding up the settlement as a "technical glitch in the language."

The oldest Gardens resident in the group, Leona Wright, 94, arrived late and used a walker to get to her seat. She didn't address council but said later that as part of the settlement she expects to get a new house after her unit is demolished. "I think it's a little late, but better late than never," she said, smiling. She has attended several council meetings over the past decade to plead with officials to consider the rights of the residents to stay in their homes or to provide a "replacement home" in the neighborhood.

Wright said she did not understand what the latest hold-up with the settlement was, but then said, "I think these guys will get it done."

The "guys" are the five councilmen, a new group that replaced a former town council that decided on the redevelopment and for years refused to negotiate with the residents who did not want to move. There were about 330 rowhomes when the plan was launched, but most have been bulldozed, including units attached to the homes of those who remained.

Most of the current council members had campaigned on promises they would treat the remaining residents fairly and settle the case.

'Hopeful'

Neither Mayor Richard Dow nor the other council members would comment after the meeting. And, Saponaro would not elaborate on his written statement other than to say at the meeting that the "procedural issues we are working through . . . are close to being completed."

"I feel hopeful it's still in progress," said Anna Arocho, 63, who has lived in the Gardens for 22 years. "I remember when the mayor knocked on my door and said he didn't agree with what the previous council did. . . . I hope you remember that," she said.

Nancy Lopez, who lived in the Gardens for 16 years and raised a family there, said she, too, was optimistic. "Even though we're upset over the little glitch in the contract, we're hopeful they will get it done. I don't understand lawyer mumbo jumbo, but it sounds like everything is going to be all right."

Last week, James Potter, who heads the 30 residents who sued, said the tentative settlement called for 20 of them to get "replacement housing" on the land where the Gardens now stands. Another seven, he said, would get a buyout and find other housing.

The meeting agenda called for the town council to vote on the settlement and also on a resolution naming TRF Development Partners Inc. as a "redeveloper for a portion of the West Rancocas Redevelopment Plan" on that land. The redeveloper was expected to build the replacement houses along with market-rate houses.

The rest of the redevelopment plan has called for nearly 300 units and retail space.

Special counsel

TRF is a nonprofit based in Philadelphia and Baltimore that does community development projects.

Also at the meeting was Lou Cappelli, who was hired by the township this year as special counsel to assist with the negotiations. James Maley Jr., who was hired as special counsel several years ago to defend the lawsuit against the township, did not attend. He filed the appeal with the Supreme Court and is still handling that for the town. Maley could not be reached for comment.

The town has paid nearly $1 million in legal fees.

After the residents sued in U.S. District Court in Camden, the judge dismissed their claim as invalid. But the U.S. Third Circuit Court of Appeals later reversed the judge, ordering a trial to determine whether the redevelopment plan had a "disparate impact" on minorities by unintentionally discriminating against them. Maley then appealed to the high court, challenging the "disparate impact" legal theory that has been used for decades to enforce the anti-discrimination Fair Housing Act.


jhefler@phillynews.com

856-779-3224 @JanHefler

www.inquirer.com/burlcobuzz

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