The first day of the Hispanic Alliance of Atlantic County's legal challenge to the city of Ventnor's redevelopment plans did not come down to what Superior Court Judge Steven Perskie will be deciding.
It was about Perskie's making it clear what he won't be deciding - such as whether the city can use eminent domain in the plan.
"Whether the city has the authority to enter into a development plan or the authority to use eminent domain is not before me," Perskie said after opening arguments. "What's before me is whether this plan constitutes an unlawful discrimination by design or impact, and if it does what should I do about it? That's all that I will be ruling on."
Perskie, who is hearing the case without a jury, said his remarks were not only aimed at those involved with the suit, but also any interested parties. Since Ventnor first proposed a major redevelopment of the northeast part of the city from Little Rock to Jackson avenues in the late 1990s, the plan has drawn a huge amount of public interest.
A proposal by developers Pulte Homes and Alliance Cos. envisions creating 375 condominiums and townhouses, 55,000 square feet of commercial property along with parking and the creation of a new commercial district. Part of the 28-acre stretch has been targeted for acquisition, including through the use of eminent domain.
Homeowners in the area have already challenged the plan and the use of eminent domain but have been defeated in Superior Court.
The Hispanic Alliance, however, is challenging the plan on the grounds that it disproportionately targets Hispanic residents, especially those who rent.
"This is about deciding who gets to live in a municipality and who doesn't," said Ken Goldman, an attorney for South Jersey Legal Services, which is representing the alliance. "Under the current plan, this proposal will make it harder for lower-income families and minorities to live in Ventnor. This is a thriving, working class area that is being targeted."
Attorneys for the city challenged whether the Hispanic Alliance has cause to bring the action since the alliance does not own any property in the affected area.
Again, Perskie was quick to make his position clear.
"I won't be ruling against them bringing the action," he said. "This is suffused with public interest, and this is a volunteer organization and some of those volunteers live in the area. Whether the group owns property has nothing to do with whether they can bring this suit."
The Alliance opened its case by presenting a sociological study based on 2000 census information to show that the redevelopment plan would have a disparate effect on Hispanic residents. The study shows that while 17 percent of the city's population is Hispanic, nearly 40 percent of those living in the targeted areas are Hispanic.
Lawyers for the city, however, argued that while Hispanics may be affected, that effect does not necessarily have to be negative. Through relocation programs and through programs designed to help families buy their first homes, the redevelopment plan could actually benefit current residents, they said.
The study also uses census data from five years ago and does not take into account the quality of housing and buildings in the area, the city argued.
The report did have a surprising revelation in that for families in the area, the median amount spent on housing was about 23 percent of their income. Federal guidelines for affordable housing are much higher, with families usually putting 30 to 35 percent of their income toward their housing.
Perskie asked the Alliance lawyers if the ultimate redevelopment brings that median number closer to accepted federal standards, would they still have a case?
Goldman acknowledged that if the alliance believed the current plan would meet the federal figure and include affordable housing, they probably wouldn't have filed suit.
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