Published in the Asbury Park Press, Wednesday, May 30, 2007
Eminent domain reform urged
Public advocate: Treat owners fairly
Posted by the Asbury Park Press on 05/30/07
BY CAROL GORGA WILLIAMS
COASTAL MONMOUTH BUREAU
In a follow-up to his 2006 report on what he characterized as statewide eminent domain abuse, state Public Advocate Ronald K. Chen says reforms through the Legislature and the courts would restore trust in the redevelopment process.
"Eminent domain reform would allow good redevelopment to continue while protecting tenants and property owners against the abuses that are undermining redevelopment across the state," writes Chen in his 31-page report, "In Need of Redevelopment: Repairing New Jersey's Eminent Domain Laws."
As expected, Long Branch's continuing redevelopment of Beachfront North — commonly referred to as the Marine Terrace, Ocean Terrace, Seaview Avenue (MTOTSA) area — is extensively criticized in the report.
In a series of report vig-nettes, Chen highlights the cases of five homeowners going up against the system. Three of those are from the MTOTSA area: Louis and Lillian Anzalone, the Hoagland family and widow Anna DeFaria.
The city's actions are criticized in sections referring to "bogus blight" designations, due-process deprivations, potential conflicts of interest and inadequate compensation and relocation assistance for both tenants and property owners.
In the year since Chen made eminent domain reform one of his priorities, he has filed three "friend of the court" briefs supporting those fighting what they argue is the overuse of eminent domain. One was filed in the Long Branch issue, another in the case of trailer park residents fighting a luxury housing and retail project in Lodi in Bergen County, and a third in an effort to overturn a blight designation of a 63-acre tract of riverfront land in
Paulsboro in Gloucester County.
Ironically, the mayor of
Paulsboro is John Burzichelli, a Democratic assemblyman who sponsored legislation (A-3257) to revise procedures for the use of eminent domain in municipal redevelopment programs. The bill was approved by the Assembly in June 2006 and is endorsed by Chen, Gov. Corzine and the state League of Municipalities.
Unlike Long Branch Mayor Adam Schneider, who only had harsh words for Chen's "fact-finding," Burzichelli called the advocate "a forceful advocate for reforming New Jersey's eminent domain laws."
Long Branch mayor reacts
Schneider's words were not quite so diplomatic. He said Chen has been "intellectually dishonest" in his call for reform, noting that the public advocate and his staff are not interested in the 15-year-history of consensus for the city's redevelopment project.
In choosing to focus only on the court record that was before state Superior Court Judge Lawrence M. Lawson, who in 2006 upheld the city's right to take the homes, Chen was concentrating only on the disputed, controversial parts of the project, which skewed his findings, Schneider said.
"I don't really care what Mr. Chen thinks," said Schneider, bracing for another round of negative publicity. "I really haven't found him to be intellectually honest since his entry into the Long Branch case. . . . So far, the court has found we followed the rules, that we've done (redevelopment) the right way. Their opinions matter. Mr. Chen's does not.
"The Legislature will do what it wants," Schneider said. "Right now, the issue has been before them for the better part of three years, and they haven't been able to come up with a decision. I learned a long time ago this isn't a case I'm going to fight in the court of public opinion or the editorial pages of the local newspaper. The courts will decide."
Schneider said reports like Chen's only emphasize the emotionalism in which this debate is being conducted.
"What they are saying is "We don't want to have planning, we don't want to have thoughtful legislation, we're just going to react to bad publicity,' " Schneider said. "I think that is a shame, but that is where it will go.
"There has been a total absence of fact-finding on the use of redevelopment law," he said. "It has been hugely reactionary. . . . Emotionalism has overtaken fact and reason on this case, and that is where it will end up. Emotionalism will carry the day. I'm not sure how and I'm not sure when."
Burzichelli, meanwhile, is more optimistic, calling the Paulsboro case one in which he and Chen are arguing about a limited technical issue. On the wider issue of reform, they are in agreement, the assemblyman said. A copy of Burzichelli's bill has been introduced in the state Senate by his colleague, Sen. Stephen M. Sweeney, D-Gloucester.
A rival bill, introduced by Sen. Ronald L. Rice, D-Essex, chairman of the Senate Community and Urban Affairs Committee, has stalled after several public hearings around the state. Chen said the Rice bill would not provide the needed reforms, noting it does not contain a provision to shift the burden of proof for a redevelopment area from the individual residents to the municipality. Rice also does not tighten up the definition of blight, which Chen says is key to reform.
"The hurdle is just the process associated with lawmaking," said Burzichelli, noting he believes action is likely before the end of the year.
However, he said, lawmakers would likely not take action until after the Supreme Court decides the Paulsboro case.
The Institute for Justice, the nonprofit law firm helping to represent MTOTSA homeowners, saluted Chen for continuing to lobby for reform.
Institute lawyer Scott G. Bullock called the report "excellent. Its strength lies in the fact that not only did the advocate call for legislative reform which New Jersey desperately needs, but also it highlighted the vital role the court needs to take in assuring abuse does not occur."
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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.