Saturday, June 24, 2006

Eminent Domain - Courier - Land grab cases on upswing

Published in the Courier News, Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Cases of government land grabs on upswing

Gannett State Bureau

TRENTON -- In the year since the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the government's right to take property for private redevelopment, the number of properties eyed for government grabs has nearly tripled nationally, according to a group of reports released Tuesday.

New Jersey, one of 20 states that had legislative sessions but no eminent domain reform, ranked fourth on the list with 611 properties threatened by condemnation since the June 2005 Supreme Court ruling, known as the Kelo decision.

Nationally, 5,783 properties have been targeted for private redevelopment this year, reports the Institute for Justice, which found there had been an average of 2,056 per year from 1998 to 2002.

"Unbelievable. It's madness, it's absolute madness," said the Rev. Kevin Brown, whose Long Branch church, home and business are threatened by eminent domain. "It violates the Tenth Commandment when you think about it: Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's home."

The numbers didn't surprise Bill Potter, chairman of the New Jersey Coalition Against Eminent Domain Abuse.

"Kelo certainly told the nation that everybody's property is up for grabs," Potter said. "It's past time for the New Jersey Legislature and the governor to protect the property owners and homeowners and farmers of New Jersey."

But those who support eminent domain say the reports' numbers aren't reflective of homes that are actually taken and accuse the institute of being biased against any use of eminent domain for private redevelopment.

"It just annoys me to no end that they just have a knee-jerk reaction that if you use eminent domain you're bad and you must be on the side of the devil," said William Dressel Jr., executive director of the New Jersey State League of Municipalities. "And that's absolutely wrong."

Patrick J. O'Keefe, chief executive officer of the New Jersey Builders Association, said the number of properties included in the study far exceeds those that are actually in danger of being taken. And if the number were accurate, O'Keefe said, it's still 611 in a state with 3.4 million homes.

"It is not a large number in relative terms to the number of properties that are out there," O'Keefe said.

Since the decision, 13 states have passed reform laws the institute called substantive and 12 it deemed "increased," while three more await their governors' signatures. Eleven states have done nothing, while New Jersey and five others have measures pending in the Legislature.

"New Jersey is one of the worst states in the country, and they're not doing anything," said Dana Berliner, an institute senior attorney.

The Assembly is scheduled to vote Thursday -- a day before the Kelo anniversary -- on a measure that aims to place more burdens on towns seeking to redevelop, limits what land can be taken and requires more compensation to those who lose land.

Assemblyman John Burzichelli, D-Paulsboro, the bill's sponsor, said he's pleased with the bill's progress and couldn't compare New Jersey's speed with other states.

The proposal "goes a long way in ensuring people that this process and this very powerful tool of government will not be unleashed in any kind of haphazard fashion," Burzichelli said.

A Senate committee plans summer hearings on its proposal.

Critics say the measure doesn't go far enough in restricting towns from using eminent domain for private projects.

"The bill in the Legislature is not going to change the fact that New Jersey is fourth," New Jersey Sierra Club director Jeff Tittel said. "Eminent domain is still going to be abused if this bill is passed."

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Plainfield resident since 1983. Retired as the city's Public Information Officer in 2006; prior to that Community Programs Coordinator for the Plainfield Public Library. Founding member and past president of: Faith, Bricks & Mortar; Residents Supporting Victorian Plainfield; and PCO (the outreach nonprofit of Grace Episcopal Church). Supporter of the Library, Symphony and Historic Society as well as other community groups, and active in Democratic politics.