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The Fate of a Small Public Library in Rocky Hill to Be Determined by a Judge

A Superior Court Judge ordered the Mary Jacobs Foundation to share a full accounting of its expenditures with the court by the end of January. The judge also temporarily halted the sale of a building, which hosted a public library in Rocky Hill since 1974.

By Barbara A. Preston | Posted December 30, 2023 |

A New Jersey Superior Judge imposed a temporary restraint that prohibits the Mary Jacobs Foundation (MJF), formerly known as the Mary Jacobs Memorial Library Foundation, from selling its Washington Street building, or from removing property from the building.

The MJF had listed the property for sale in December 2019, and had recently gutted the building—removing book shelves, desks, and file cabinets.

Mary Jacobs Library

An online ad posted on LoopNet in 2019 advertised the library building in Rocky Hill as being for sale for $3.5 million. A superior court judge granted an injunctive relief on November 30 that temporarily prohibits its sale, pending the outcome of an upcoming court hearing.

Superior Court Judge Haekyoung Suh also ordered the MJF to provide the Borough of Rocky Hill with a full accounting of its liabilities and expenditures from January 28, 2022 to the present. The MJF must provide the accounting to the court no later than January 30.

MJF argued that there’s another library 1.7 miles away so the beneficiaries of the Jacobs Trust (Rocky Hill residents and donors to the library) would not be harmed if the library building were sold and the mission changed.

“That does not prevail here,” Judge Suh said. “The plaintiffs, as well as the community of Rocky Hill, will have a community asset removed—one that has been available to the community for 50 years. It would be a clear violation of the intent of the donors.”

Rocky Hill Borough Council and former library donors had filed a lawsuit on September 26, in Somerset County Superior Court-Chancery Division, representing the following plaintiffs: The Borough of Rocky Hill; the SavetheMJL nonprofit corporation; Helen Morris; Walter J. Bradhering; Adele Batchelder; William K. Hallman; and Thomas D. Bremner.

MJF trustees then filed a 362-page document in New Jersey Superior Court on November 20 stating it is not legally bound nor are they under any obligation to use their assets to provide a library, or to maintain a building in Rocky Hill Borough.

Judge Suh explained in the first online hearing in Superior Court, Chancery Division, Somerset County on November 30, that “the following facts must be articulated.”

“On May 13, 1971, Harold Jacobs drafted a will and in his will he gifted $800,000 to establish an endowment to carry out the mission of the Jacobs Trust. The trust was executed in the memory of his dear wife. The purpose of the trust was to establish, equip, and maintain a free public library open to the public in Rocky Hill," the judge said.

“Now the Jacobs Trust is very specific about what the monies were to be used for—to construct a library, to operate the library, and there were provisions specifically for how it was to honor Mary Jacobs. The trust indicated that the monies were to be used to build, erect, establish, construct, equip and maintain a library in the Borough of Rocky Hill ... and its name was to be Mary Jacobs Memorial Library," she said. "And, it specifically stated, no other name shall be used at any time.”

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The Mary Jacobs Trust, “required that the building be erected in a specific location—in Rocky Hill—preferably on Washington Street. The trust authorized all the appointments of the library—that is to purchase books and to spend money for the maintenance of the building. The trust also indicated that the Mary Jacobs Memorial Library expressly prohibited certain activities, which included sports, athletic events, classrooms, or social activities,” the judge said.

The trust even specified the appearance of the library building, Judge Suh noted. It was supposed to be a red brick colonial-style building, with the first floor to be used for library services and the second floor for meeting rooms.

It even specified that a portrait of Mary Jacobs hang on the wall inside the library building. The trust also required the library to observe her birthday on December 10 of each year.

A portrait of Mary Jacobs is displayed on the library wall.

The Mary Jacobs Memorial Library Foundation was created as a non-profit corporation in November 1972 and the library opened its doors in 1974. It has operated in accordance with Harold Jacobs’ trust and the certificate of incorporation and its bylaws until recently.

The library had become part of the Somerset County Library System (SCLS), and operated fairly well until approximately 2018, when Montgomery Township announced that it intended to construct its own library.

As such, the Mary Jacobs Library Foundation expressed concerns that it may not be able to continue its existence without a partnership with the SCLS. “I can only assume that this is what precipitated the [Foundation] to put on the market in 2019 the sale of the actual building,” Judge Suh said.

Rocky Hill entered into an agreement with Somerset County Library and the MJF in 2020. Montgomery Township had agreed to continue to provide funding for the Mary Jacobs Memorial Library until its new library building was built and the township could exit.

“Now this is very important to the functioning of the library,” Suh said. “At some point, the SCL commission were actually functioning as the library, and the Foundation was keeping up the building.” 

Once this agreement came into place, it set into motion concerns about what would happen to the Rocky Hill library once Montgomery pulled out.

“At least that was what was at issue for the board when it decided, without a court order, to amend its certificate of formation when it eliminated memorial library from its name. And [MFJ] also changed its mission — also without court order,” Judge Suh said.

It’s new purpose was to “support projects that benefit our community, particularly in the areas of creativity, education, sustainability and community engagement...”

The library was put on the market. It closed for renovation, reopened, and admits that much of the building is not being used for library purposes, the judge said.

“Those actions have initiated strong responses by the plaintiffs, who filed an action because they want to halt whatever activities the defendant was engaging in. They deemed those actions to be in violation of NJ statutes. 

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To grant the preliminary relief the plaintiffs seek, they had to demonstrate four prongs, including the following three.

Irreparable harm

The court finds the plaintiffs have shown that the real property, which is unique, will be lost without an injunction. And the loss of the library would be the loss of an asset to the Rocky Hill Community and the community at large, the judge said. 

Substantial likelihood of success on the merits

The claim must be based upon a set of legal rights and facts that are substantially undisputed and that demonstrate a reasonable probability of success on the merits. [A good chance that the plaintiff could reasonably win the case.]

Rocky Hill Borough, as the plaintiffs, say that MJF violated state law by changing the mission of the library, amending its certificate, and putting the property up for sale without court approval.

“That is a clear violation of NJ statutes NJSA Title 15, Section 15:8-27. Changes must be authorized prior to the actual action,” Judge  Suh said. “That is, the defendants would have had to file a complaint to the court under Cy Pres and ask for permission to change its purpose, to change its certificate, and to ask for sale of the property. They did not do that and, as such, they have violated that particular provision of the statue."

Judge Suh also found the plaintiffs have standing because “they are the beneficiaries of the library, and they have been donors of the Mary Jacobs Foundation.”

Balance of equities

Finally, with respect to the balance of the equities, the court found that the plaintiffs have also prevailed. MJF portended that no harm would be done without the relief.

In other words, MJF argued that there’s another library 1.7 miles away so the beneficiaries of the Jacobs Trust (Rocky Hill residents and donors to the library) would not be harmed if the library building were sold and the mission changed.

“That does not prevail here,” Judge Suh said. “The plaintiffs, as well as the community of Rocky Hill, will have a community asset removed—one that has been available to the community for 50 years. It would be a clear violation of the intent of the donors.”

“The court grants the plaintiffs’ request for an injunctive relief that prohibits the sale, removal, or disposition of any of the assets including the real property together with any fixtures at the library,” she said.

Judge Suh also said she found there are questions regarding the accounting of the MJF monies.

“There are some inconsistent statements that the foundation lacks liquidity and that it needed to take this actions to preserve their assets,” she explained.

“But yet, at the same time, the foundation should have, according to the form 990, approximately $3.7 million as well as interest accruing on at amount of $100,000 and they have the library building, which has an appraisal of $3.5 million.”

There are questions regarding what has happened with the money, and how it’s being used. The court granted the request of the plaintiff for an accounting of the assets to be provided to the plaintiffs by January 30.  ■


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