By David Morse
The nightmare is still not over for homeowners of the Gardens neighborhood in Mount Holly Township, NJ. Having endured nearly a decade of bullying by local politicians while they fight to save their homes, embattled homeowners now await a decision by the U.S. Supreme Court about whether or not they will hold arguments over a petition filed by the township.
The Mount Holly township council has been using the threat of eminent domain since 2003 to force residents into selling their homes, all so that politicians can transfer the land to Keating – a private development firm that wants to build high-end townhomes and retail outlets atop the demolished community. The destruction thus far is so extensive that even the township’s own lawyers admit that it looks like “a bomb has gone off” in the neighborhood.
Vivian Brooks, a widowed great-grandmother and Gardens homeowner, testified at a 2008 public forum about the unsafe and heavy-handed tactics used by the township to force her and dozens of other homeowners to leave their homes. “The people that the township hired hit my house with their bulldozer, [which] shifted my roof, cracked my walls, and loosened the beams,” Ms. Brooks testified, “The day the bulldozer hit the house, my great-granddaughter was living with me and she was sitting on the bed. The bulldozer hit the side of the house she was sitting [on] and she could actually put her hand where the wall crashed and pushed in. She had sheet rock all in her hair when the ceiling fell.”
Ms. Brooks is one of many seniors living in the community who have been offered paltry sums for their properties, and whose age may disqualify them from a new mortgage. As of June 2012, the median price for a home in Mount Holly is $136,800; at least $52,000 more than the $42,000 to $84,000 offered by the township.,
Homeowners scored a bittersweet victory on April 9, 2012 when township manager Kathleen Hoffman issued a “cease and desist” order to halt the project and all ongoing litigation. Saddled with $18 million in construction and legal debt, and after having destroyed at least 260 homes, Ms. Hoffman simply sighed: “We don’t have the money.”
The township’s Supreme Court appeal comes after a September 2011 decision in the Third U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that Gardens homeowners had been improperly denied their ability to argue in District Court that their rights under the Fair Housing Act had been violated. “Frankly, we’re sorry the township wants to continue this aggressive litigation mode after they had said they maybe wanted to negotiate some type of settlement,” said Olga Pomar of South Jersey Legal Services, a firm representing some residents.