Eminent domain before high court — Camden (NJ) Courier-Post, 1/9/05

Transferring private land to other private hands at issue

By Richard Pearsall

The U.S. Supreme Court will hear oral arguments Feb. 22 in a case that could have a major impact on New Jersey's redevelopment law.

Kelo v. New London is a Connecticut case that deals with "eminent domain," the right of government to seize private property for public use.

Eminent domain is the 800-pound gorilla at the center of the debate over redevelopment in New Jersey.

Without eminent domain, says David Speegle, president of the businessmen's association in Riverside, redevelopment would proceed more smoothly.

"If they could take that clause out, if that wasn't part of the hammer, it might go over better," Speegle said, speaking of his township's plan to redevelop the so-called Golden Triangle and the area around it.

The right of government to take private property for public use is rooted in both federal and state constitutions and is based on the assumption that some projects - highways, for example, - are so important that seizure is justifiable.

It is enshrined in the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in a single phrase: "nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation." Connecticut case

In the New London, Conn., case, the plaintiffs are a group of longtime homeowners, landlords and businessmen in what is described as a working-class neighborhood.

They contend their local government overstepped its authority in condemning their properties for "private" use - the construction of a hotel, health club, condominiums and offices.

"Does the U.S. Constitution allow the government to take property from private party in order to give it to another private party because the new owner might produce more profit and more taxes for the City from the land?" their legal team at the Institute for Justice, a Washington-based public interest group, asks.

The Connecticut Supreme Court sided with New London, ruling 4-3 that the economic development the condemnation is intended to promote is sufficient justification for the municipality to proceed.

"This ruling is an invitation to disaster," the plaintiffs' legal team responded, "because every business generates more taxes than a home and every big business generates more taxes than a small one. If the ruling stands, any property can be taken through eminent domain.

"The U.S. Constitution and every state constitution requires that private property only be taken for `public use,' such as a road or public building, not for private economic gain," the plaintiffs' attorneys argue. "The use of eminent domain for the creation of tax revenue is the broadest and most dangerous expansion of eminent domain yet realized."

Supreme Court
In September, the high court agreed to hear the plaintiffs' appeal.

The issues in the case are similar to those that have been raised in New Jersey.

Here, the debate is not over stimulating growth in areas the private sector has walked away from, but over government substituting one private property owner or use for another.

It is an issue that has emerged in Riverside.

Support for redevelopment of the Golden Triangle, a 30-acre former industrial area there, has been strong.

But as the plans have unfolded, they have been expanded to include the surrounding areas - the theory being that a "buffer zone" is necessary.

Stu Scott, 52, has lived in Riverside all his life and has run an auto repair business across the street from the Golden Triangle for more than 20 years.

The future of his and other auto repair ships on Pavilion Avenue are threatened because a developer interested in building townhouses and offices will not want such grimy neighbors in close proximity, township planners reason.

"I know we're out of here," Scott said, wondering just who is going to benefit from the "renaissance" of his town.

"These guys all want Cherry Hill," Scott said of the politicians and businessmen he believes are pushing the redevelopment project. "Well, let them move to Cherry Hill."

Clarence Newton, who operates the Volkswagen repair business next door, has a similar view.

Newton, 62, has lived in Riverside since he was 2.

"I'm a Riverside person," he said, "so if it's good for the town as a whole, I'm for it."

But he knows he's unlikely to find another spot large enough to accommodate the hundreds of old Volkswagens he has accumulated for parts to keep other "Bugs" and "Beetles" running.

And he wonders if it's really Riverside or its residents who will benefit.

"If it's going to be anyone's future, it should be the people who are here, not a gold mine for someone else."

On the other side of the Triangle, on Kossuth Street, Speegle operates a machine shop.

Rising to speak at a public hearing in November, Speegle noted that the list of permitted uses for his area included town houses, professional offices and day care centers, but nothing that seemed to include his business.

"I don't see anything in here for manufacturing," Speegle said. "I've been here since 1986 and have invested a good deal of money in this business."

Speegle was told that it was "very unlikely that the (land use) board would approve a site plan that would do away with a going business" and that, "if you're a pre-existing use, you get to stay."

Speegle stressed that, as a businessman and taxpayer in Riverside, he's not against redevelopment.

"The township will ultimately benefit if it brings in more ratables, and residents benefit if property values go up."

But he's worried nonetheless.

"Basically they tell you, `Don't worry. It's grandfathered.' But if you're in a redevelopment zone, you're in limbo."

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