Blog for Highland Park

Welcome to the Blog for Highland Park, a weblog chronicling events in Highland Park, NJ from an alternative perspective to the often one-sided slant of the official borough newsletter.

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Location: Highland Park, New Jersey, United States

I am a freelance writer and community activist who has worked on many progressive and Democratic political campaigns over the last 25 plus years and a lifelong resident of Highland Park, NJ. I have a BA in Journalism from Rutgers University, an MA in Middle East Studies from Harvard University, and an MEd in English Education from Rutgers Graduate School of Education. An enthusiastic amateur astronomer, I have just completed Swinburne University Astronomy Online's Graduate Certificate of Science in astronomy and am pursuing a Masters of Science in astronomy at Swinburne. I am also an actress with experience in theatre and film and have written a full length play. I am currently working full time on a book "The Little Planet That Would Not Die: Pluto's Story."

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Help Fight Eminent Domain Abuse Again

The Institute for Justice, a national organization dedicated to ending eminent domain abuse, needs volunteers to help a Vietnamese-American business owner in Atlantic City keep his jewelry store now that a wealthy developer wants to take his land and build yet another casino.

On Wednesday, September 3, the City Council of Atlantic City will decide whether to designate businesses and homes in a 24-acre area around the former Sands Casino as "in need of redevelopment," in order to seize the properties and transfer them to Pinnacle Entertainment for a new casino.

Quang Ha owns a jewelry store right next to the developer's lot. In the 1980s, his small factory in Hanoi was seized and he was imprisoned. Quang fled Vietnam, and after a treacherous journey, finally made it to the United States. After years of hard work and learning the trade, he opened his own business - one that the government couldn't seize. Or so he thought.

If the city votes to designate his property as "in need of redevelopment," it may be seized so that a rich developer can build a casino and make money on Quang's land. It would be a travesty to let the city destroy Quang's American Dream!

Before the City Council meeting on Wednesday, the Institute for Justice is organizing a rally to show support for Quang and the other threatened property owners in the area, and to send a message to those in power that we will not tolerate eminent domain for private gain. Here are the details:

RALLY to Stop Eminent Domain for Private Casino's Gain
September 3, 2008 @ 4pm
1301 Bacharach Boulevard
Atlantic City, NJ
City Council meeting to follow at 5pm.

Let's help save Quang's American Dream and those of his neighbors and property owners across the Garden State. We may be winning the battle against eminent domain abuse here in Highland Park and even making significant progress across the state, but this fight is far from over. For more information, please contact Christina Walsh, Director of Community Organization, Institute for Justice,
901 N. Glebe Road, Suite 900, Arlington, VA 22203. You can reach the Institute by phone at(703) 682-9320 or on the web at or

And in another good sign that public sentiment is overwhelmingly opposed to the use of eminent domain for private redevelopment, the Rutgers film festival is again presenting "Greetings from Asbury Park," the story of a 91-year-old woman whose modest home is threatened by eminent domain to make way for a waterfront redevelopment project. The film will be shown on Friday, September 19, Saturday, September 20, and Sunday, September 21, in Scott Hall Room 123 on the College Avenue Campus at 7 PM on all three days. Tickets are $10 for members of the general public; $9 for students and seniors; and $8 for Rutgers Film Co-op/NJMAC Friends.

Director Christina Eliopoulos will make a personal appearance at the Friday night showing.

For more information on the film showings, call (732) 932-8482 or visit

It's not over until any and all taking of private residential and commercial property in NJ and in this country is eradicated forever. These two events are opportunities to stand up for property owners and against big developers and to learn the truth about the projects these developers work hard to sell to communities. Be part of the change!

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

A Great Debate

I'm going to go off topic in this post and recommend that anyone reading this take the opportunity to follow a fascinating conference occurring this week from Thursday to Saturday, a conference I am honored to have been invited to take part in--the Great Planet Debate at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland (interesting choice of locations for this event).

The Great Planet Debate, which will discuss "Science as Process" in the context of the ongoing controversy over how to define a planet, can be found at . For people in a town like Highland Park, people who take pride in being part of an intellectual, university community, this conference promises to be a fascinating discussion of how we know what we know and how we define the terms we use.

The planet definition issue, especially as it relates to the status of Pluto, is of special personal interest to me. As those who receive my email newsletter might be aware, I have long had a personal interest in astronomy and always include dates and times of solstices, equinoxes, and even locally visible eclipses in my messages. Several month ago on this blog, I urged readers to consider buying an excellent CD called "A Tribute to Clyde Tombaugh and the New Horizons Mission" as a holiday gift for friends and family members.

There is a personal note here: Although I did not know it then, August 24, 2006 changed my life forever. It began as an ordinary fourth Thursday, which meant it was a Food Pantry day. Only later did I find out that in Prague, in the Czech Republic, four percent of the International Astronomical Union (IAU) had voted in a highly controversial manner to create a new, linguistically nonsensical planet definition, one that, as everyone now knows, excluded Pluto.

Naturally, as a writer, I am interested in words, phrases, and definitions. Campaigns often use take these out of context and use them to mean something entirely different than what they were originally intended to mean. As a writer interested in astronomy, I found this decision outrageous and began a blog about it, which was intended to be a one-time deal.

What happened next was a testament to the power of the Internet. I began to receive requests from all over the world to write articles and further blog entries about this issue. After the 2007 Highland Park primary, even more people who had seen my writing and wanted support statements for Pluto contacted me with opportunities to write advocating Pluto's official reinstatement as a planet.

It has been a long, exciting, wonderful learning experience over the last two years. I have learned much, not just about Pluto and the solar system, but about all aspects of astronomy. I have met many wonderful, amazing people, a breath of fresh air in a political climate where opponents have spread the most vicious lies and personal attacks about me, where even a rabbi had the gall to falsely refer to me as "sick" at a public event two days before the 2005 primary.

So while I learned much about the solar system, I also learned that there are kind, accepting, welcoming, non-judgmental people who will not look down on someone for not making a lot of money or holding a high level position. These are the people organizing the Great Planet Debate, and they have given me the tremendous honor of doing a public presentation at this event. The topic of my presentation is, "Planet Definition Is Important."

The organizers of the conference, Dr. Mark Sykes and Dr. Hal Weaver, have opened it to the public because they respect rather than look down on public opinion, because they want to hear your input, our input. What an amazing example of a truly open process.

I especially hope the people who have most maligned those of us who oppose this administration with lies, for example, the claim that I lack leadership skills; those who have tried to force disappointment and setbacks down my throat when these were never my authentic experience; those who have tried to force an elitist vision down this town's throat writing out the businesses they don't like and using the most deplorable practices to enact that vision, take time to find out what a genuine, open process really is. I also hope they find out how wrong their negative attacks on me are.

Some political leaders in this town seem to think they are still in junior high and are trying to recapture their youth by creating a clique, in group versus out group situation. If they want to do this, fine, but don't even think of choosing me as the one to exclude. The organizers of the Great Planet Debate have proven my opponents' unjust assessment of my abilities wrong. I am proud to be a national speaker, and I will not put up with being the victim of the mayor's politics of personal destruction. And yes, Helen, the status of Pluto is important to me, so take your "holding down a job" nonsense (I do have one in spite of your false Internet claims) far beyond the orbit of Pluto and deep into the Kuiper Belt where it belongs.

As I leave for the Great Planet Debate, I want to thank all the wonderful people who have been with me throughout this journey, especially Dr. Alan Stern, Dr. Hal Weaver, and Dr. Mark Sykes, who have continually stood up for Pluto and have valued the input and contributions of all who have offered them.

To paraphrase Dr. Seuss, "a planet is a planet, no matter how small." Pluto is a planet, and this conference will seek to undo the mess created two years earlier by the IAU. Exclusion, whenever it is done with the agenda of isolating one specific object or person for no reason than someone's personal agenda, is always wrong. This conference will be a summer educational experience that no one should miss.

For anyone interested in this fascinating discussion, I will be blogging about the conference on my other site, .

Saturday, August 09, 2008

A Victory for NJ Property Owners

Residential and commercial property owners in New Jersey have yet another victory to celebrate in the fight against eminent domain abuse. On Thursday, August 7, a three-judge panel of the New Jersey Appellate Division unanimously reversed the June 2006 decision of Superior Court Judge Lawrence Lawson, which allowed the city of Long Branch, N.J., to condemn a charming seaside neighborhood known as MTOTSA for a luxury condominium development.

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.

Sunday, August 03, 2008

Redevelopment Falters

From the time the idea was first unveiled, the redevelopment vision has been wrong for Highland Park. It called for rents of commercial properties on Raritan Avenue to skyrocket, for upscale boutiques to replace longstanding blue collar businesses, and for increased density that would destroy the character of our town and turn it into a version of Brooklyn.

Fortunately for the borough, the redevelopment effort, which has cost the taxpayers several hundred thousand dollars and yielded nothing in tax benefits, is faltering all on its own in several areas.

The proposed Dornoch project, which calls for luxury condominiums as well as a mandated arts center on Raritan Avenue at the site of the old Senior Center, has been stalled since March. This application, for which negotations between the Redevelopment Agency and Dornoch Management are ongoing, proposes 35 luxury condominiums--scaled back from an initial 66 due to a lack of demand for the condos and financing for the project--in the Farmers' Market area between South Second and South Third Avenues. What would become of the Farmers' Market should the project gain approval is uncertain.

What is certain is the requirement that the site host an arts center, a personal vision of Mayor Frank for at least six years. In the borough's redevelopment plan, no other use of the old Senior Center location but this is permitted. Originally, the Dornoch proposal sought to purchase several adjacent homes, an option luckily dropped when the project was scaled back.

The executive director of the Redevelopment Agency, who is paid a $35,000 annual salary with taxpayers' money, is not commenting on the state of the project. That is not a good sign, and the witholding of information is most certainly not a characteristic of good and open government.

On June 23, the Zoning Board voted down a redevelopment proposal for 233 Cleveland Avenue, the site of Illuminating Experiences, a business currently owned by a big time financial contributor to the mayor. That proposal had also been downsized, from an initial 178 luxury and 20 affordable condominiums to 119 luxury and 14 affordable units.

Over eight months, residents of Cleveland Avenue and other concerned residents attended Zoning Board meetings expressing concern about this increase in density and the inevitable resulting issues of traffic congestion and influx of children to the school system.

While the mayor continues to tout higher density as a "principle of smart growth," even council members are resisting the idea. Lou Pichinson, the newest council member, was quoted in a May Star Ledger article as objecting to an increase in density.

The vice president of Avalon Bay Communities, the developer who made the application, claims that environmental and traffic studies have shown the building would produce no negative environmental impacts and no significant traffic increase. But these studies were paid for by Avalon Bay. Before any land use board grants approval for this project, that board should order independent traffic and environmental studies to be done at the developer's expense but out of the company's control, to provide residents more accurate, well-deserved findings on these matters.

When the mayor speaks of redevelopment succeeding, she cites the renovation of the former Bernstein building on North Third Avenue. But that renovation is interior, does not change the building's footprint, and therefore does not require any involvement by a redevelopment agency. It is not a redevelopment project; it is a renovation project. We don't need a taxpayer funded Redevelopment Agency executive director, a $20,000 a year Redevelopment Agency attorney, or an annual $50,000 contribution of taxpayer dollars from the borough for such renovation projects to happen.

By eliminating the Redevelopment Agency, we could automatically save the taxpayers of Highland Park $105,000 a year. Remember that when you get your new tax bills this month.

We can save another $30,000 by following the 2004 advice of former Councilwoman Carolyn Timmons and doing away with the Business Improvement District (BID), which is still getting $30,000 a year from the borough. BID Executive Director Graham Copeland has been laid off, and this position, which cost the business district $70,000 a year, should not be replaced. As of now, businesses in the district are paying between $1,000 and $2,000 a year in a BID tax that largely goes toward consultants in event planning and public relations. The mayor has actually suggested expanding the BID to all commercial properties in Highland Park as a means of bringing in more revenue. This is exactly the opposite direction of the one we should be taking, which is to lift this tax burden from our already struggling businesses.

Back in 2005, when George Valenta and I were running for Borough Council, a supporter of the mayor argued that she "has a vision for this town" that she seeks to implement. We knew then, and it is even more evident now, that that vision is the wrong one for our borough. Both political opposition and market forces continue to drive that point home. Higher density is wrong for Highland Park.

The mayor is fond of saying that in contrast to plans by previous administrations, hers is actually being enacted. The reality is, it is not, and it should not be enacted. Five years after she unveiled her 2020 proposal, which inappropriately tied green and environmental initiatives to higher density, that plan is exactly where it should be--sitting on a shelf with its predecessors, gathering dust.