Published in the Star-Ledger, Wednesday, May 30, 2007
Report lists abuses in land seizures
Public advocate says his findings prove the need
to expedite eminent domain reform
BY RICK HEPP
The state public advocate urged legislators yesterday to finish a long-stalled overhaul of the law that permits New Jersey towns to seize land for private redevelopment, saying the law allows local officials to abuse property owners.
In releasing a second report on New Jersey's eminent domain statute, Public Advocate Ronald Chen said towns officials have exploited the law to include desirable properties in so-called blighted areas, seize land without notice, low-ball landowners being pushed out and rubber-stamp projects where they have a personal interest.
"The findings in this report crystallize the urgent need for our Legislature to change the state redevelopment law," Chen said. A proposal has been stuck in committee in the Senate for a year.
The public advocate's report focused on eight civil lawsuits that it said highlight abuses of eminent domain. In those cases, either judges or attorneys with the Department of the Public Advocate established a factual basis for the property owner's claim.
The report found evidence of towns terming a desirable area "blighted" based on little more than chipping paint or loose gutters. It also found instances where towns failed to hold "fair" hearings, as well as attempts to inadequately compensate property owners, leaving them unable to find comparable living arrangements.
Attorney Edward McManimon III, whose Newark firm has represented many towns making use of the redevelopment law, was critical of the report, saying it ignored the fact that many towns have acted appropriately.
"With a broad brush, this indicts the process as if it were cavalier," McManimon said. "It doesn't show enough respect for what the local officials go through. They make those decisions, and they're not easy and they're held accountable for them."
To Chen, however, it is the exception that proves the rule in eminent domain.
"From these cases we believe that people's rights have been violated and the state's statute as it currently exists allows it," Chen said.
Chen pressed state lawmakers to finish up a proposal (A3257) that cleared the Assembly more than a year ago but has stalled in the Senate while members of both houses try to merge different versions.
The bill would place a legal burden on towns to show why property seizures are necessary and would eliminate language that allows towns to take underutilized properties.
Not everyone is in favor of shifting the burden of proof from the property owner to the municipality. Groups like the state League of Municipalities say such a move would chill the use of eminent domain, which it sees as a vital tool in transforming undesirable sites into residential and commercial developments.
Sen. Ron Rice (D-Essex), who chairs the Senate's Community and Urban Affairs Committee, where the proposal was introduced last May, said he expects the logjam to break this fall during the lame-duck voting session.
"I don't think we're that far apart," said Rice, who has reworked the Senate version of the bill. "You can't have a perfect bill. There's too many interests out there, but I've tried to get through it the best I could to address all of these issues."
Assemblyman John Burzichelli (D-Gloucester), who sponsored the bill in the lower house, said he was confident an agreement would pass this fall to reform New Jersey's 15-year-old Local Redevelopment and Housing Law.
"We have to work to gain and restore public confidence in the redevelopment process," Burzichelli said. "There's going to come a point in New Jersey where the development that takes place is redevelopment."
Jeff Tittel, director of the Sierra Club of New Jersey, said he hopes the report can "light a fire" under lawmakers to tackle the problem.
"I think it's more likely they're lame and they've ducked when it comes to dealing with eminent domain," Tittel said. "Meanwhile, 64 towns are using eminent domain against citizens and there is no reform."
Rick Hepp may be reached at email@example.com or (609) 989-0398.
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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.