Daily Record (October 02, 1996)
Korean merchants to sue Pal Park
May claim that laws reflect race bias
By Peter J. Sampson
Palisades Park’s Korean-American merchants are gearing up for a legal battle with the borough – a break from tradition for the first-generation immigrants, who say they are more comfortable negotiating than fighting.
Despite fears of a divisive showdown, Korean business leaders plan to challenge a spate of ordinances that seek to curtail business activity in the name of preserving the quality of life in town.
Three lawsuits are being prepared and will likely be filed in the next few weeks in state and federal court, said attorney Christine M. Bae of New York and Fort Lee. Allegations of racial discrimination by the borough are among the claims being considered, she said.
The prospect of a legal bout with the borough has alarmed some in the growing Korean community and confirmed officials’ worst fears.
“It’s frustrating,” Mayor Susan Spohn said. “We believe we’ve trying to do good for the community, and it appears that this group is going to use the race card to try to get an economic gain for themselves, and that’s not nice.”
Spohn added: “This doesn’t help the community heal, either, because people who have a dark side to them, so to speak, in our community feed on this.”
After Bae requested copies of ordinances adopted this year, the mayor said she and the borough attorney surmised that “they’ve going to claim that everything that we’ve done to try to make Palisades Park a better place to live was aimed at them.”
The decision to enter into courtroom combat marks the first time that Koreans in Palisades Park have taken such a step. It comes a time of heightened racial tensions. Korean residents, who account for a quarter of the borough’s 15,000 people, have become increasingly outspoken in opposition to what some perceive as an assault on their very existence.
KOREAN : Merchants to sue town
Officials have defended the measures as antidotes to traffic and parking problems, and they strenuously deny any racial bias.
Bae said she will represent the Korean-American Chamber of Commerce of Palisades Park in challenges to two ordinances that curtail nighttime business hours and imposes stricter prohibitions on Sunday sales than Bergen County’s blue laws.
The chamber represents more than 200 Korean-American merchants, about 90 percent of the borough’s business community.
“The chamber is going to bring sort of a class-action [suit] on behalf of all the individual businesses that are affected,” Bae said. Karaoke clubs, restaurants, beauty parlors, and nail salons are those most harmed, she said.
In a separate action, Bae said, she will challenge the council’s decision in August to rezone a portion of the Broad Avenue commercial strip near the Leonia border, restricting it to residential uses.
The rezoning, applauded by residents from both towns, came as a Korean developer was appearing before the Planning Board on an application to build a two-story mini-mall with parking for 90 cars on an irregular-shaped parcel.
Bae characterized the move as spot zoning, an illegal practice, and said her client spent more than $500,000 to buy the property and prepare plans.
She also plans to contest a zoning ordinance prohibiting the operation of two retail businesses on one tax lot.
Enforcement of an ordinances requiring all but a handful of businesses to close by 9 p.m. has been temporarily blocked pending a hearing on a suit brought by two 24-hour gas stations.
The controversial measures were adopted this year as part of a campaign – in the mayor’s words – to “promote the peace, tranquility, and residential character of the borough.”
Spohn and other officials have defended the measures as antidotes to increasing traffic and parking problems, and they strenuously deny any racial bias.
But that hasn’t quieted opposition or kept groups such as the Asian-American Legal Defense and Education Fund in New York and the Bergen County Council of Churches from closely monitoring recent events in the borough.
The decision to move into the legal arena has divided the Korean community. Some favor continuing efforts to amicably resolve differences. Others say a more aggressive posture was needed.
“This is the first time that the Korean merchants have stood up for their rights. In that sense, it’s very significant,” said Jason Kim, a school board member.
“It’s good for them and it’s bad for them, because I feel they are losing their innocence. I guess they are becoming Americanized,” Kim said.
He said he fears a legal battle will create more tension, division, and hostility.
“The Korean community, especially the store owners, sees this series of problems as a threat to their livelihood and a threat to their right to live in Palisades Park. Thatswhy they come to this kind of conclusion,” Kim said.
“I still believe there is a way to resolve all these problems by negotiating, without going into the court,” he said.
Like many Korean residents, Kim said he strongly agrees with the council’s goals of preserving the quality of life in town, but he says they are wrong to have taken a blanket approach instead of dealing with the individual stores that cause problems.
“I think the consensus of most residents is that they are threatened by these kinds of laws. They are afraid of what the next one will be,” he said.
Charles Park, a former president of the Chamber of Commerce, said he laments the falling-out with borough officials.
“We thought Borough Hall cared about the Korean chamber. But as a result of the things that are happening right now, the Borough Hall treats us very badly. So we changed the whole attitude to [regard] Borough Hall like the enemy. I feel sorry for that,” he said.
Andy Nam, another former chamber president, said he doesn’s think the borough is guilty of discrimination, and he fears a suit may further damage the borough’s image and provide political fodder in the upcoming election.
However, Nam criticized the borough for curtailing business activity to ease traffic congestion while approving a new ShopRite supermarket that will draw more traffic.
The council’s liaison to the Korean community, real estate agent Peter Suh, said he thinks few Koreans oppose the business curfew, but when the action is taken in the name of the Korean chamber, it gives the wrong impression that a majority of the community is behind it.