A Victory for NJ Property Owners
The MTOTSA residents are being represented by Scott Bullock, a senior attorney with the Institute for Justice and by Peter Wegener of Bathgate, Wegener &
Wolf in Lakewood, N.J. The Institute for Justice is an advocacy group whose mission is to combat eminent domain abuse nationwide.
U.S. Rep. Frank Pallone has publicly taken a stand against any use of eminent domain in the redevelopment effort by the municipal government of Long Branch.
Two years ago, I took part in a Kelo Day protest in Long Branch immediately following Judge Lawson's decision. All of us who took part in the protest had the chance to view a genuine community firsthand, as we were welcomed into a neighborhood of attractive beachfront homes where residents, many who had lived there for decades, routinely joined one another for cookouts, friendly get togethers, and of late, activism to save their homes. That activism became necessary because Mayor Adam Schneider decided this friendly, homey neighborhood was "blighted" and should be replaced with luxury condominiums.
Many of the neighborhood residents are senior citizens, and some are veterans. For all, this is the only home they know.
The Appellate Court decision is the latest in a series of New Jersey court decisions restricting the long unfettered use of eminent domain for private economic redevelopment.
Last year, in the case of Gallenthin Realty Development, Inc. vs. the Borough of Paulsboro,the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled that local governments cannot simply declare an area blighted and then proceed to take properties in that area via eminent domain for the sole purpose of economic development.
In this year's Long Branch case, the three judge panel aptly wrote: "We agree with
appellants that, in light of the principles laid down in Gallenthin, the City did
not find actual blight under any subsection of N.J.S.A. 40A:12A-5, that the record lacked substantial evidence that could have supported the New Jersey Constitution's standard for finding blight, and that the absence of substantial evidence of blight compels reversal."
This decision means that unless Long Branch can produce additional information illustrating "substantial evidence of blight," its quest to bulldoze modest homes on behalf of a private developer is illegal.
Bullock accurately noted that this latest ruling is a victory not just for the Long Branch residents, but for property owners throughout New Jersey, praising it as "sending a clear message that abusers of eminent domain will be held accountable."
Jeff Rowes, another staff attorney with the Institute for Justice, pointed out that at last, "New Jersey courts understand that 'blight' and 'redevelopment' are often merely smokescreens for taking valuable property from people of modest means and giving it to rich and powerful developers."
Combined with the recent victory of the Halper family in Piscataway, in which a court ruled the family must be compensated for their farm, taken by eminent domain in 2006, at 2004 rather than 1999 market rates, the MTOTSA ruling confirms that the tide is indeed turning in the battle against eminent domain abuse. For Highland Park home and business owners, this is definitely good news.
The days of governments declaring properties blighted due to vague, often class-based criteria such as "underutilization" are coming to an end. But the fight isn't over yet. At the grassroots level, we must continue to oppose this unjust practice until eminent domain is permanent removed from the "toolbox" used in economic redevelopment.