By Kevin Coughlin
In a 21st-century version of a back alley brawl, a Morristown bar owner is citing dusty property records, 19th century laws meant for the Ku Klux Klan and a 20th century law aimed at mobsters in a legal dispute over a right-of-way.
Jimmy Cavanaugh, owner of the Iron Bar and the newly opened Revolution beer hall on South Street, is accusing the Morristown Parking Authority and developers and residents of nearby luxury residential units of “racketeering” and violating his civil rights — by allegedly impeding his use of a DeHart Street alley where he gets deliveries and stores dumpsters.
The MPA calls the civil lawsuit “entirely meritless” and says more than 100 people and entities — some of whom preceded Cavanaugh at that location– are entitled to use the alley, a central piece of a massive redevelopment that has revitalized the downtown, benefiting everyone including Cavanaugh.
The litigation portends a contentious year for the former Essex County freeholder and onetime owner of the now defunct Jimmy’s Haunt nightclub.
Cavanaugh is battling the town council over an alcohol curfew imposed on Revolution (previously called the Iron Bistro), which shares the liquor license of the adjacent Iron Bar.
And he’s seeking permission to extend that license again, into the former Parm Centro restaurant next door. Cavanaugh has leased the space and plans to relaunch it as a Mexican restaurant, the Gran Cantina. Opposition is likely from residents who have packed council meetings to cite problems they blame on proliferating bars.
While insisting these issues are separate from his right-of-way lawsuit, Cavanaugh, a former supporter of Mayor Tim Dougherty, has made no secret of his displeasure with town hall as the mayor contemplates a third term.
“Do they want vacant storefronts or successful businesses? They are absolutely singling us out,” Cavanaugh said on Friday.
His lawsuit names the MPA as a defendant, along with developers of the nearby 40 Park condos, the Metropolitan apartments and the Lofts apartments rising on DeHart Street; and the 40 Park Condominium Association Inc.
These units and their ground-level shops and restaurants rose on the site of the old Epstein’s department store, across from the historic Morristown Green, and helped drive the town’s resurgence.
Cavanaugh claims they frequently clog the alley with moving vans and vehicles making deliveries to Market Street. He predicted congestion will worsen as Market Street adds an office building, restaurant, hotel and more apartments.
‘IT PACKS A PUNCH’
The MPA operates a parking garage overlooking the DeHart Street right-of-way–which it owns. The authority granted easements for 40 Park, the Metropolitan and the Lofts in 2007, a year before Cavanaugh bought the Footlocker storefront (a Woolworth’s five-and-dime for decades) that became the Iron Bar in 2012.
Those easements, Cavanaugh says, have diminished his rights to the alley–set forth in deeds from the 1880s.
By depriving Cavanaugh of those rights, the lawsuit claims, the defendants have violated Section 183 of the Civil Rights Act of 1871, also known as the Ku Klux Klan Act.
It further alleges they have “engaged in a pattern of racketeering” and their communications constitute wire fraud under New Jersey’s Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO), a civil law based on a 1970 federal measure aimed at organized crime.
Plaintiffs can sue for triple damages, fees and costs under RICO. Cavanaugh is doing so, and is asking the courts to rescind the MPA’s 2007 easements and place restrictions on any new ones involving the right-of-way.
“It packs a punch. We don’t plead it lightly,” said Cavanaugh’s lawyer, Joshua Bauchner, adding: “They can’t deprive us of our property rights without due process.”
“As far as civil rights and RICO, I go by the advice of my attorney. The lawyers are bleeding the town over these issues. I’m trying to run a business,” Cavanaugh said.
PAGING PRESIDENT CLEVELAND
Steve Mlenak, an attorney for the MPA, labeled Cavanaugh’s claims “entirely meritless.
“Several, in our opinion, are frivolous. The authority has worked diligently to keep the peace, and keep all users–over 100 of them–using the right-of-way fairly and equally,” said Mlenak.
One such claim involves access from Market Street. Cavanaugh says movers and delivery trucks for 40 Park should enter from Market Street, via an entrance that is closed for a piazza.
Transportation officials never would allow trucks to enter there, counters Robert Goldsmith, the MPA’s lawyer for 33 years. Market Street is a narrow, busy thoroughfare that is part of U.S. Route 202.
Taxpayers don’t underwrite the parking authority, either, Goldsmith said. MPA grants to the town have helped the municipality avert property taxes increases in recent years, he said.
Nor are Cavanaugh’s easements exclusive; they merely confirm his access, according to Mlenak. He said the bar owner has ignored town directives to enclose his dumpsters or store trash inside his bars.
And property deeds from the Grover Cleveland era never envisioned Cavanaugh’s intense use of the 16-foot-wide alley, Mlenak said. The Iron Bar seats 800 patrons, which increased to 1,180 with Revolution, and will grow again if the Gran Cantina is approved, he said.
“His need for the right-of-way has expanded exponentially,” a need Cavanaugh could meet simply by reserving delivery spaces on South Street in front of the Iron Bar for $20 a day, Mlenak said.
Relations with the Iron Bar owner were fairly smooth until about a year ago, the attorney said. Tensions ratcheted up recently, he said, when Cavanaugh’s dumpsters blocked the right-of-way.
All parties had a shot to make peace last fall. Cavanaugh’s lawyer proposed time limits for vehicles in the alley, better advanced notice of arrivals, more street loading zones, and signs, among other remedies.
The MPA was fine with just about everything–except Cavanaugh’s demand to ban Metropolitan and Lofts tenants from using the alley, said Goldsmith.
Both sides appeared last month before Superior Court Judge Rosemary Ramsay. The parking authority asked her to dismiss the case; Cavanaugh sought a preliminary injunction. Both requests were denied and the matter was transferred to the Chancery Division.
The developers named in the lawsuit anticipate a court appearance soon. They contend Cavanaugh’s legal team has represented them in the past, and should be removed from the case.