By: Bruce Sattin
An interesting case at the intersection of zoning and discrimination law was recently decided by a Federal District
Court Judge in New Jersey. Joanne Gifford owns a home in a redevelopment zone in Jersey City. Ms. Gifford suffers from medical issues that restrict her mobility and prevent her from walking any distance without pain. She requested permission to construct a carport in front of her home, but such structures are not permitted in the
redevelopment zone in Jersey City. The city offered her a dedicated handicap parking space on the street in front
of her home, but she argued that she needed a better accommodation to her handicap. The on-street space was
subject to regular parking restrictions for street cleaning and was obstructed by a bicycle lane. The zoning officer,
whose hands were tied by the ordinance, suggested that she request a variance from the Planning Board. She filed
an application for such a variance, but the Planning Board never scheduled a hearing.
Ms. Gifford brought an action against the City in District Court, Gifford v. City of Jersey City, alleging that the City had violated the Federal Fair Housing Amendments Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act and the New Jersey Law against Discrimination and Municipal Land Use Law. Jersey City argued in a Motion to Dismiss that the case was not “ripe” for decision by the Court, since the Planning Board had not yet decided her application. Judge Esther Salas was not convinced. At that time, the Planning Board had sat on the application for 16 months.
She ruled that such an undue delay was equivalent to denial and that requiring Ms. Gifford to go back to the Planning Board created an unnecessary hardship of additional delays and more costs. She added that, “Housing discrimination causes a uniquely immediate injury.” In addressing the substantive issues, Judge Salas found that the Fair Housing Amendments Act requires municipal officials to make reasonable accommodations in their rules, policies, practices, and services when necessary to afford handicapped individuals equal opportunities to use and enjoy their dwellings. Once Ms. Gifford demonstrated the need for an accommodation to her disability, the City then had the burden of demonstrating that its accommodations to her were reasonable and that her proposed carport and curb cut would impose undue costs, administrative problems, and a fundamental alteration of its zoning plan. Jersey City failed to meet those burdens, and its Motion to Dismiss was denied. The Court never found it necessary to address Ms. Gifford’s other three statutory grounds for objecting to the Motion.
With the Motion for Summary Judgment having been denied, the case will proceed to discovery and then trial before Judge Salas. While this case is in its preliminary stages, Judge Salas has sent a strong signal to Jersey City that it will lose if this case proceeds to trial, indicating that
the Court believes that the laws prohibiting discrimination against persons with handicaps will overrule zoning restrictions that are not critical to the good order of the town. It is likely that Jersey City will now settle with Ms. Gifford before there is a trial.