Published in the Star-Ledger, Wednesday, July 25, 200y
Lodi trailer park residents beat back eminent domain
BY RUSSELL BEN-ALI
In another loss for the forces using eminent domain to reshape communities, an appellate panel yesterday rejected an appeal by Lodi officials to force two private trailer parks to move so they could be replaced with upscale housing and shops.
The ruling effectively ends a bitter four-year battle between low- and fixed-income mobile home residents and municipal officials. It backs a 2005 Superior Court ruling that found the borough built too weak a case in declaring the properties blighted.
Yesterday's decision follows a similar ruling issued last month by the state Supreme Court. And it is a victory for Public Advocate Ronald K. Chen, who entered the case on behalf of residents as part of a pledge to fight cases he deemed to be abuses of local power.
Trailer park residents and their supporters, who at times described their plight as a David-vs.-Goliath- sized struggle against a well-fi nanced adversary, applauded the decision.
Roman Vonkomarnicki, 61, a resident of the Costa Trailer Court and secretary of the grassroots group Save Our Homes, said he had often wondered where he and fellow residents would end up. The Costa and Brown trailer parks sit on 20 acres of land along Route 46 East.
"They are on limited incomes and barely survive," Vonkomarnicki said of some of the residents. "I finally think justice prevailed."
Still others said the ruling will help preserve a communal way of life quickly vanishing in North Jersey. They said the parks represent a rare affordable housing option in costly Bergen County.
The borough's redevelopment plan called for a gated senior hous ing community with 250 units and 112,000 square feet of retail space. The project was estimated to bring in $3 million in annual tax revenue, instead of about $250,000 that the borough now collects from the trailer parks.
They deemed the land "in need of redevelopment" and planned to seize it and turn it over to private developers. Towns have long used eminent domain powers to make way for roads and schools.
But in recent years, it has become increasingly popular in New Jersey to seize old industrial properties, even thriving businesses or occupied houses, to make way for large-scale residential or retail developments.
"Now we know that you can't simply say that you can redevelop on the basis that you're not getting the highest return on your land," said Michael Kates, an attorney for the park residents.
Chen agreed, characterizing the ruling as "a victory of the rights of property owners across the state."
He reinterated his call for a massive overhaul of the state's redevelopment law -- an effort that has been bottled up in the state Senate since last summer.
In last month's decision, the state Supreme Court ruled towns seeking to seize property must provide substantial evidence of blight. The appellate division case similarly faulted local officials but left open the possibility for them to make a stronger case.
But a newly elected mayor and new borough leadership doesn't appear to favor continuing the fight. On July 16, the borough council voted to withdraw its appeal, but the decision was handed down before officials got a chance to act.
"I don't believe the new governing body has any plans at this point to go back and introduce any redevelopment in that area," said Lodi Borough manager Tony Luna. "Many of the residents are senior citizens who have been living there over 40 years. I think (officials) wanted to ease people's minds and give them some peace."
Russell Ben-Ali may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (973) 392-5807.
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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.