Rare Book Monthly

Articles - April - 2023 Issue

New Jersey Supreme Court Rules Against the Sale of a Town Library

Inside the old library (West Orange Public Library Facebook photo).

In a strange case, the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled against a sale of the old library by the community of West Orange. After fending off the challenge in two lower courts, their approval was overturned by the highest court and final authority.


The planning behind this case goes back several years, but the plans were officially approved by the town council a year ago. This includes the building of a new, larger library at a new location while the property holding the old library was to be sold to a developer to build low-cost senior housing. The housing would be built over the current library which the town would continue to use for alternate purposes. There is also senior housing on adjacent property so this is a logical location. Plans for the old library include a library annex and maybe some other services for seniors. A shuttle is to be available to take people from the annex to the new library.


Not everyone is pleased with the idea, though the new library promises to provide significantly improved space and services. Those living near the old library feel inconvenienced, and this is evidently an area of lower income residents who need some of these services more than others. The result was a lawsuit against the town to stop the sale of the old library.


Normally, there would not be much private citizens could do to prevent a sale like this. That is the town council's prerogative. However, the way this sale was structured does run into some legal limitations. Normally, selling off town property must be done at public auction. The reason is obvious, to prevent self-dealing or helping friends to the detriment of the citizens of the town. In this case, the purpose of not having public bidding was to make sure the property was used for the purpose the council wanted, which is to help meet the need for affordable senior housing. A buyer at auction might use it for building luxury housing for wealthy people or some other such use.


Now there are exceptions to the rule requiring public auctions, which were meant for situations like this. It is permissible to skip the public auction requirement if an area is in need of redevelopment. The test to determine that need is, “Areas with buildings or improvements which, by reason of dilapidation, obsolescence, overcrowding, faulty arrangement or design, lack of ventilation, light and sanitary facilities, excessive land coverage, deleterious land use or obsolete layout, or any combination of these or other factors, are detrimental to the safety, health, morals, or welfare of the community.”


Both the hearing court and the appeals court found that these conditions were met and approved the sale without auction. However, when it reached the New Jersey Supreme Court, that court overturned the appeals' court ruling. It determined the conditions were not met.


In the case of Kevin Malanga v. Township of West Orange, the town's experts testified that while the library was still functional, its “physical limitations . . . prevent it from offering the programs, technology, and function that the community desires,” and from living “up to the benchmark standard of modern libraries.” Without going into the details supporting the Supreme Court's conclusion, they essentially said that while there may be limitations to and obsolescence in the current library, they are not detrimental to the welfare of the community as required by the statute. They made it clear they were not questioning the motives of the Council. In referencing the town's argument that they were building a new “state-of-the-art library,” the court said, “Nothing in this opinion prevents the Township from achieving that commendable goal.” Rather, they were focused on the reasons for the general rule requiring public bidding, that it guards against “favoritism, improvidence, extravagance, and corruption.” Consequently, the exact requirements for an exception must clearly be met, which, they concluded, the town had not done.


As to what happens next, I don't know. If the purpose of the lawsuit was to preserve the library at its current location, I doubt that goal will be achieved, despite the victory in court. The building housing the new library has already been refurbished and the move is in progress. I don't think it will be stopped. The Mayor has already said it will not. They may stop the construction of senior housing, though I suspect the town council will find a way to do that which meets the legal requirements. Hopefully, the annex will be comparable to a good branch library, with computer and database services available, but as far as a main library, I think that horse has already been let out of the barn.

Rare Book Monthly

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    Bonhams, July 15-25: PICASSO, PABLO. Le Carmen des Carmen. Paris, 1964. $2,000 - $3,000
    Bonhams, July 15-25: KARA WALKER SILHOUETTES FOR TONI MORRISON'S FIVE POEMS. $2,000 - $3,000
    Bonhams, July 15-25: FIRST APPEARANCE OF PINOCCHIO IN ENGLISH. COLLODI, CARLO.New York, 1892. $2,000 - $3,000
    Bonhams, July 15-25: BONAPARTE, JOSEPHINE. Autograph Note (unsigned) in French. $1,000 - $1,500
    Bonhams, July 15-25: FROST ON MATTHEW ARNOLD.Autograph Letter Signed to Adams, July 27, 1934. $800 - $1,200
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    Fonsie Mealy’s, July 30-31: Cantillon (Richard). Essai sur la Nature du Commerce en General, Traduit de l'Anglois, Sm. 8vo London (Fletcher Gyles) 1756. €3,000 to €4,000.
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