New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal’s office has spoken out against locals-only driving restrictions enacted in the towns of Leonia and Weehawken, but that might not be enough to stop the controversial traffic-taming practice.
A lawyer who sued Leonia over its restrictions on nonresident motorists filed an order to show cause on May 4, asking the town to stop enforcing its law in light of an opinion from the Attorney General’s Office declaring Town Ordinance 2018-5 invalid. But the town’s mayor has said in published accounts that Leonia did not agree with the state’s contention that the restrictions it imposed lie outside the authority of a municipality.
In January, Leonia posted red signs warning nonresidents to stay off of roughly 60 secondary streets in the town, lest they face a $200 fine. The restrictions are only in effect at certain hours of the day. Residents of the town were issued yellow hanging tags for their cars, so police can differentiate between locals and outsiders. The law was enacted to cut down on traffic, especially from drivers seeking shortcuts to the George Washington Bridge who are directed onto secondary streets by navigation applications such as Waze. Fort Lee attorney Jacqueline Rosa, who is self-represented, filed a suit Jan. 30 to have the Leonia ordinance deemed invalid.
Weehawken enacted a similar ordinance that went into effect Feb. 13.
Rosa said she wrote to Grewal after discovering a 1955 formal opinion from the Attorney General’s Office invalidating an ordinance enacted by Demarest which barred designation of “no through” streets, prohibiting traffic whose destination is not on the street in question. She asked Grewal if that opinion still stands, and the state concluded that it does.
Letters sent on March 16 by Kevin Jespersen, chief counsel to the attorney general, to Leonia and Weehawken town officials say the ordinances are invalid because they were not reviewed by the state Department of Transportation. The letters also cite the 1955 opinion by then-Attorney General Grover Richman Jr. in the Demarest case.
“There is no inherent power vested in a municipality by which it may legally restrict the right of the public to the free use of streets and roads. Any right of the municipality to pass ordinances and resolutions regarding the flow of traffic over its streets and highways can arise only by legislative grant; and there has been none,” Richman said in a letter to Frederick Gassert Jr., who was then director of the Division of Motor Vehicles.
Both letters instructed local officials to refrain from enforcing the ordinances “or the Attorney General will be required to take appropriate action to enforce the law.”
Jespersen encouraged Leonia and Weehawken officials to work “with the New Jersey Department of Transportation to discuss a lawful resolution” of their traffic problems. In each case, the Attorney General’s Office said it was willing to “facilitate and participate” in the meetings.
Leonia officials did not respond to calls from the Law Journal. Mayor Judah Ziegler said on northjersey.com that the town would not withdraw its ordinance and that the attorney general was not concerned about pedestrian safety in the town. Ziegler told the website that the town did not share the attorney general’s belief that Leonia lacked authority to take the actions it did.
Rosa said she was “pleased” that the Attorney General’s Office stepped into the controversy, and that she was “shocked to say the least” that the mayor is not accepting the attorney general’s interpretation of the law.
Rosa says she has spoken to many people who have been questioned by police in Leonia while on the way to patronize local businesses, to make doctor appointments or to visit friends. She says she passes through Leonia on her daily commute, but has not received a ticket in Leonia. She is not concerned about lack of standing, since standing rules for a prerogative writ action are very flexible, requiring only a loose public interest, a standard she says she can meet.
Weehawken’s municipal attorney, Richard Venino, said the town had not enforced its ordinance, which only applies to handful of locations. He said town officials met in early April with representatives from the Attorney General’s office and the state Department of Transportation to discuss possible solutions to the traffic problems.