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Big issues on council agenda

Votes to protect small businesses, debates affordable housing, and discusses climate change

CITY REPEALS SMALL BUSINESS PROTECTIONS – Faced with a potential violation of the First Amendment, the city is repealing its ban against chain stores downtown.

In a rare sign of independence, last Wednesday the City Council rejected a move by Mayor Steven Fulop to repeal an ordinance that helped protect mom-and-pop stores in downtown Jersey City.

Although the legality of an ordinance protecting small businesses from encroachment by large chain stores has not been formally challenged yet in Jersey City, the law elsewhere has.

“The fact is court rulings are a mixed bag,” said Council member Candice Osborne, who authored the original ordinance, and had lobbied hard behind the scenes for the council to retain the protections.

The city’s law department requested repeal of the protection nearly a month after the law was used to block the establishment of a CVS drug store downtown.

Mayor Steven Fulop proposed the ordinance in 2015 as a way of protecting small business owners downtown from competition from chain stores.

But because the legislation banned establishing chain stores if the same company was doing business with 300 miles of downtown, the city may have violated interstate trade provisions, and overstepped its authority in broaching on an area government by the federal government.

Councilman Michael Yun opposed the repeal, saying that the city should wait for a formal challenge before repealing the measure.

Business Administrator Robert J. Kakoleski said the city has yet to be taken to court about the restriction, but that there have been informal challenges.

The ordinance passed in 2015 would restrict many retail chain stores from opening in areas of redevelopment in the downtown area as well as in buildings that have received a tax abatement from the city.

City Corporation Counsel Jeremy Farrell said the law may violate the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, and that the council needed to repeal it in order to rework the ordinance.

Yun proposed amending the ordinance. But Farrell said this is too complex a change and needed time to be reworked.

The change would have enabled any kind of store in the downtown district, provided it met zoning and licensing requirements, Kakoleski said.

But Osborne said she believed the city’s restriction was legal.

Councilman Richard Boggiano said he would not vote for repeal because it would hurt mom and pop stores in Jersey City. Councilman Germaine Robinson said he understood that large chain stores tend to bring in more jobs, but said he would continue to support the protection.

Councilman Daniel Rivera said he’s seen too many local stores vanishing and wanted to support those that still remained. Councilwoman Joyce Watterman said small business are vital in the community.

City to sell land to county for new court complex

The council introduced an ordinance that would authorize the sale of land on Newark Avenue for $7.5 million for the construction of a new county court house complex.

This would replace the current court house at 595 Newark Ave., property that would eventually be sold to help cover the cost of construction. The new courthouse is to be built in Jersey City on the portion of land bounded by Newark Avenue, Oakland Avenue, Cook Street and Route 139.

“This is wrong. They will be tearing down good buildings.” – Richard Boggiano

The county has already bonded more than $50 million to buy this and other property needed for the new complex as well as to reconfigure the southern portion of Central Avenue, allowing it to intersect with Newark Avenue.

Boggiano is opposed to the sale, saying the reconstruction would require the demolition of viable structures and the area would be better suited for other commercial develop that would increase tax rateables to the city.

“This is wrong,” he said. “They will be tearing down good buildings.”

The county’s plan to replace the existing court house has been under development for more than a decade. The current building – which houses Superior Court, Juvenile Court, as well as court-related operations – has been deteriorating for decades with serious problems to ventilation and other systems.

The replacement would become a court complex with a number of additional functions, as well as parking for jurors, court workers and others.

Sharing the abatement wealth may not work

As pointed out earlier this month, the city’s effort to redistribute wealth from its tax abatement program may not work as well as people hoped.

On Wednesday the city withdrew one ordinance that would require all future tax abated property to set aside 20 percent of the units as affordable units, property based on the median income as established for the area by state and federal guidelines.

Faced with mounting criticism in an election year, as well as the potential threat the city’s school district may lose state aid in the future, Mayor Fulop originally announced that the city would share some of the revenues gained from tax abatements with the school district.

A tax abatement generally allows cities to permit developers to make payments in lieu of taxes as incentives to build. In most cases, developments would pay the city more, while not being required to pay most of the taxes to the county and none of the taxes to the schools.

Generally the payments to the city itself would total more than the city would get under conventional taxes.

But as it turns out, the city would ultimately make less from the abatements than it would from convention taxes if it was to pay the schools from its shares, and would make it unprofitable for developers to build a project if they were forced to give revenue to the schools.

Making a complicated situation even worse is the requirement by the city that developers also provide affordable housing.

Councilman Yun has said if the city loses money on these abatement deals, property owners with unabated properties would be forced to make up the difference in quarterly tax payments.

The city council, meanwhile, adopted another ordinance for a 30-year abatement for a property in Ward F. The project would set aside 55 of 99 units as affordable.

Lavern Washington, a housing advocate for Ward F, said the city’s policy of demolishing housing projects have left huge gap in affordable housing. The city and the Jersey City Housing Authority over the last few years have demolished large housing complexes in favor of mixed income units. While some affordable housing units have been retained in the new complexes, many people were giving Section 8 vouchers that theoretically would pay for the rent in other housing.

“The problem is not everybody is taking Section 8,” she said.

Climate change ordinance is still vague

When Donald Trump announced that the United States would withdraw from an international climate control accord it signed in 2016, state and municipal leaders from around the nation vowed to support the accord anyway.

In Jersey City, Mayor Steven Fulop issued an executive order in May that would join other cities in this effort.

But at the caucus meeting of the council on June 12, representatives for the administration admitted they are as yet unclear as to what this actually means.

The council passed a resolution at its June 14 meeting that would serve as a companion piece to the mayor’s executive order, reaffirming Jersey City’s commitment to environmental sustainability and climate change. But like the executive order, does not provide details as to what this will entail.

Al Sullivan may be reached at asullivan@hudsonreporter.com

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