COAH: A teachers concern started it all

This is one of three interrelated articles that appeared in Sunday’s issue of the Herald News. Hopefully they provide some background information on COAH.

COAH: A teacher’s concern started it all
Sunday, January 21, 2007

“The Mount Laurel obligation is a moral obligation,” says Kevin Walsh, an associate director of the Fair Share Housing Center, an advocacy group in Cherry Hill, not far from the township where the Mount Laurel decision originated.

Some 40 years ago, Mount Laurel, in Burlington County, about 15 miles from Philadelphia, was a rural enclave of farms. Most residents were white, but there was a small black population. Ethel Lawrence was among them.

She was a schoolteacher and mother of nine children, and Lawrence’s family had lived in Mount Laurel for generations and worked on some of the farms. In the late 1960s, township fathers were planning major commercial, residential and industrial development without any affordable housing included in the plans. Lawrence feared that without zoning for apartment buildings, her extended family could not afford to stay there.

She and other black residents developed an alternative plan to provide apartments and brought them to the zoning board, which turned them down.

Shortly thereafter, the mayor visited Lawrence and her group at Jacobs Chapel Church, one of the oldest black churches in the state, said Peter O’Connor, a lawyer who became involved in Lawrence’s quest. “The mayor told the people that he was not against them racially, but if they could not afford to live in the town, they would have to move on,” O’Connor said.

O’Connor enlisted the help of the Burlington County Chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, which sued Mount Laurel for using restrictive zoning and land-use ordinances that excluded homes for low- and moderate-income residents.

“Her major concern was that her children and grandchildren would not be able to live in the town if all these massive plans went forward,” he said.

In the lawsuit, Southern Burlington County NAACP v. Township of Mount Laurel, the court in 1972 decided that the township’s zoning made it difficult for those of moderate and low incomes to live there. But the ruling applied only to Mount Laurel, which chose to appeal the decision.

The state Supreme Court ruled against the township in 1975, in what became known as Mount Laurel I. The court mandated that all municipalities use their zoning and land-use powers to provide a “realistic opportunity” for low and moderate-income families to find housing. The number of units was to be determined by the municipalities.

To read the full article click here.

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