S. Jersey legal group joins eminent domain case — [South Jersey] Courier-Post, 12/9/04

Conn. dispute could affect South Jersey actions

By Jason Laughlin

An Atlantic City organization is getting involved in a Supreme Court case it says has ramifications for developments in South Jersey.

South Jersey Legal Services has filed an amici curiae - or friends of the court - brief in connection with a Connecticut eminent domain case being heard by the U.S. Supreme Court, the organization's deputy director, Douglas Gershuny, said Wednesday.

The case could affect suits the organization has filed against Camden and Mount Holly, two municipalities that have declared neighborhoods blighted.

Defining an area as blighted, or a risk to safety and health of residents, can be a precursor to buying up the property through eminent domain or condemning properties.

But Gershuny's organization fears the eminent domain process is being used to provide developers with property.

Unlike New Jersey, Connecticut does not demand that a property first be declared blighted before eminent domain procedures can begin, Gershuny said.

The Supreme Court case, Kelo v. City of New London, revolves around an accusation against the city that it claimed property through eminent domain not to improve an area but instead to create an area with businesses that would pay higher taxes.

Suzette Kelo, a New London resident who stood to lose her home in the face of commercial development, has argued that the city sets a precedent that would allow municipalities to claim private property solely for the purpose of creating more profitable ratables. The South Jersey Legal Services filed its brief in support of Kelo. The Supreme Court is likely to hear arguments in the case no earlier than spring of 2005.

Camden has declared the Cramer Hill neighborhood blighted and Mount Holly has done the same with Mount Holly Gardens, a townhouse development.

"We feel the neighborhood is not blighted at all," Gershuny said of Cramer Hill. "It's a very viable neighborhood."

South Jersey Legal Services' suits also accuse Camden and Mount Holly of civil rights violations, as the two neighborhoods declared blights are minority neighborhoods.

Randy Primas, Camden's chief operating officer, said the city wasn't using eminent domain to benefit developers or to push out Cramer Hill's current residents.

The developers are going to sell the new homes to current residents for well below their market rate, or at the homeowner's existing mortgage, he said.

"This is an effort to keep them in," Primas said.

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