Thursday, June 14, 2007

Eminent Domain - Ledger - Supremes ruling give hope to owners

Published in the Star-Ledger, Thursday, June 14, 2007

Ruling gives hope to property owners

Cases also pending in Newark, Long Branch

Star-Ledger Staff

For years, property owners have protested at the Statehouse and complained about being robbed of their land by developers and local politicians pushing redevelopment.

Yesterday, reacting to a state Supreme Court decision limiting towns' use of eminent domain, they felt as if someone was listening.

"This is a great thing for our case," said George Mytrowitz, a downtown Newark auto body shop owner who is fighting the city's "blight" designation of the area where his business is situated, along with 20 or so other property owners. "Now there's a chance the abuses will stop."

In Lodi and Long Branch, where residents have eminent domain cases pending before state appeals courts, there were also cheers.

"Oh, my God. That profoundly affects us. We're obviously not 'blight,'" said Tom Anzalone of Long Branch, who stands to lose the home he shares with his parents on Ocean Terrace to private oceanfront development. It is in a waterfront area where the town wants to see luxury townhouses and condominiums.

But others cautioned that the narrowly written ruling may not affect all pending cases -- or even prevent towns' future use of eminent domain.

More than 150 communities in New Jersey are currently doing redevelopment projects, said Bill Ward, a Florham Park attorney involved in eminent domain cases in Union Township, Long Branch and elsewhere.

The Supreme Court decision criticized the Borough of Paulsboro, in Gloucester County, for declaring a piece of land near the Delaware River "blighted" on the basis that it was "not fully productive."

The ruling is certain to make redevelopment more expensive for towns by requiring them to pay planners more, and it may also slow the process, said Stuart M. Lederman, a Morristown lawyer who said he has represented clients on both side of the issue.

Yet it remains to be seen "if there are subsequent decisions by this court that will eat away at" towns' ability to exercise eminent domain, he said.

"It'll be interesting to see, over the next year, if there are other decisions the court has an opportunity to make which may actually curb" eminent domain, Lederman said.

Ronald Chen, New Jersey's Public Advocate and a prominent foe of what he calls "eminent domain abuses," said yesterday's ruling is sure to impact a number of cases before state courts.

Towns that take property "the right way and use a meaningful, constitutional definition of blight" have nothing to fear, Chen said.

Those that decide to take people's land on the basis that it is "not productive," as Paulsboro did, will have to find another rationale, he said.

In Newark, property owners fighting redevelopment in a 14-block area around Mulberry Street were awaiting a decision at the trial court level when yesterday's ruling came down.

Jack Buonocore, a lawyer in Morristown representing the plaintiffs, said the judge in the case immediately requested that the attorneys address the Supreme Court decision in supplemental briefs.

The two cases are similar, according to Buonocore.

"These are not blighted properties. They are areas where developers see opportunities. All these redevelopments have two things in common -- you can either see the water, or you can see the train station," he said.

Michael Kates is a Hackensack lawyer representing residents of two trailer parks in Lodi threatened by eminent domain. Lodi plans to replace them with condos and villas intended for much higher earners, he said.

He argued the mobile home owners' case before the appellate division in January, and was waiting for a decision when yesterday's ruling came down.

Yesterday's ruling may help his case, as Lodi used the same standard as Paulsboro to declare the trailer parks "blighted," Kates said.

Michelle Bobrow, a Long Branch resident whose oceanfront condominium lies in a redevelopment zone, said she wished the justices had done more.

"What we'd like is, it's deleterious to health, safety, or welfare, or it is crime-ridden -- criteria that are quantifiable," Bobrow said. "Municipalities and developers are running roughshod over residents and business owners."

Star-Ledger staff writer Maryann Spoto contributed to this report.

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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.