N.J. appeals court rules town can’t close park to non-residents
For the past 32 years, it's been a crime to play on Haledon's playground if
you're not a resident of the small New Jersey town.
Now, thanks to a ruling by a state appeals court, both residents and
non-residents alike are free to use the playground whenever they like — without
The appeals court decision, issued June 21, upheld a 1998 ruling of a New
Jersey Superior Court. The lower court declared that the town's ordinance, which
“prohibits nonresidents from using its parks unless they are participants in or
spectators at a sanctioned sporting event or are the guests of a resident,” was
Violation of the ordinance had carried a fine of up to $500 and/or 30 days in
The American Civil Liberties Union sued the town following the 1993 arrest of
Hwida Barkawi. A resident of neighboring Prospect Park and a native Syrian,
Barkawi was fined $200 after taking her 4-year-old son to the playground.
Attorneys for Barkawi claimed that the town's ordinance violated her First
Amendment free-speech and assembly rights, restricting her from a public place
where ideas could be exchanged. They also claimed that it infringed upon her
Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures and
was a violation of equal-protection laws.
ACLU attorney Frank Askin, who represented Barkawi in the case, said that the town's actions were also racially discriminatory.
“The only way to tell if people are non-residents is by their appearance, and
she was an Arab woman in Arabian clothing,” he said.
But James Segreto, Haledon city attorney, contends that the town's actions
were justifiable, having “nothing to do with ethnicity, race, or national
“I think the notion that this was born of xenophobia — fear and dislike of
foreigners — is distressing,” Segreto said, noting
that Haledon is a diverse community. “Haledon is a blue-collar town with a
population of 6,800. Our mayor is an Italian-American, and we have one
councilman that is Japanese and one with Puerto Rican roots.”
“It's simply a matter of legal principle if a small town with limited
resources can control where [their resources] are used,” he said. “We are a
small municipality with one recreational facility that is hardly adequate for
our town, let alone out-of-towners.”
The court's ruling affirmed Judge Margaret McVeigh's decision declaring the
ordinance unconstitutional. McVeigh had ruled that it created both free-speech
and search-and-seizure concerns for non-residents.
In the appeals court decision, judges responded to the town's claim that the
law was necessary “pursuant to its concerns to conserve the health, welfare and
The judges concluded that “it is hard to imagine what health, welfare and
safety issues might arise” when a mother and son from a nearby town visit the
More than 80 towns in New Jersey have similar residents-only park laws.
However, attorneys for the ACLU noted that this is the first case to challenge
the law in court.
“We now have an appellate decision which is binding statewide,” said David
Rocah, staff attorney with the ACLU of New Jersey, suggesting that other towns
need to begin changing their laws.
Meanwhile, Segreto says he plans to appeal the case to the state Supreme
Court this week
“No matter which way the Supreme Court decides it, the final ruling should be
decided by them and not an appellate court,” he said.
“If the Supreme Court says that it implicates the First Amendment, we would
obviously respect the decision,” Segreto continued. “We would expect all of the
municipalities in the state of New Jersey with similar restrictions to join
Haledon and be compliant.”
Rutherford, a city with a similar non-resident ban in all of its parks, has
yet to make any changes to its laws.
“It hasn't been discussed by the council,” said Mary Kriston, Rutherford city
clerk. “It hasn't really been a problem. Non-residents use our parks all the
time and we don't ask for ID or anything like that.”
Officials in neighboring Prospect Park, which has a residents-only ordinance
for one of its parks, have no plans to change their city's laws.
Jane Critchley, Prospect Park city clerk, said that Prospect Park had a “totally different situation”
from that of Haledon.
Money and land for the park were donated by a family in the town, she said.
“No other money goes toward the park except for private family money.”
She also added that when the Hofstra family donated the money for the park,
it did so under the stipulation that the park remain residents-only. If the ban
were lifted, the land would go back to the family and the park would close.
While Barkawi v. Borough of Haledon winds through the appeal process,
Haledon's park remains open to both residents and non-residents.
“Parks are the quintessential public forums, where people of different
backgrounds, races, and social strata can interact,” attorney Rocah