By A Scott Ferguson and Justin Vellucci
Roughly seven years after losing his home in the city to eminent domain, Robert Hilton marched down Ocean Avenue on Sunday in hopes his neighbors would never meet the same fate.
"Eminent domain is everything that's rotten about New Jersey government," said Hilton, as he joined protesters in Long Branch to oppose the process by which the government acquires private land for a public use. "Eminent domain in New Jersey has been turned into a political patronage program."
At separate rallies in Long Branch, Neptune and Asbury Park, scores of concerned citizens slammed "land grabbing" on behalf of developers.
The protesters also voiced support for Kelo vs. City of New London in Connecticut, a U.S. Supreme Court case expected to be heard Tuesday, in which property owners are challenging the government's taking of their nonblighted homes for "economic development."
Yvonne Braime, an activist with Neighbors United for Neptune, set the day's tone early Sunday morning as she spoke through a bullhorn to a small crowd gathered outside the Neptune Municipal Building on Neptune Boulevard.
"We're not alone in this fight," said Braime, whose group is fighting a proposed development on West Lake Avenue in the Midtown section. "We understand that we have to fight to get the resolution that we want. I have a smile on my face today because we are happy about this protest."
The purpose of Sunday's rallies, organizers said, was to call attention to the use of eminent domain on behalf of private developers. Braime and her group hope the Supreme Court justices side with the property owners, which could mean the end of eminent domain for these type of developments.
Dorothy Argyros, the leader of Neighbors United, thinks developers and their allies would continue to use any means possible to take what they need for their projects.
"They want our valuable seaside land and they want it cheap," Argyros said.
Neptune Township Committeeman James W. Manning Jr. said his biggest concern was not with the concept of development but the specific means of promoting it.
"My issue is not against revitalization but against eminent domain," said Manning, who attended a Sunday rally and has opposed the West Lake Avenue development. "A profit-making enterprise should not use the tool of eminent domain. You can still have progress without eminent domain."
While rallies started Sunday with about 25 people in front of the Neptune Municipal Building, scores of vocal protesters, many of them carrying signs, formed a line that stretched for blocks as they walked down Ocean Avenue from Broadway nearly to the Monmouth Beach boundary.
Katina Tsakiris said she was thrilled to take part in the march. For her, it meant the issue of eminent domain was coming to a head.
"We've been living with this over our heads for 10 years," said Tsakiris, who is the fourth generation in her family to live in a Victorian home on Ocean Avenue that may be acquired through eminent domain. "We're happy things are moving because we can start fighting."
In between shouts of "No way! We stay!" Long Branch resident Tim Ryan contended officials were bending eminent domain rules by claiming that certain parts of the borough's beachfront need to be redeveloped.
"It's a beautiful neighborhood — it's not blighted," Ryan said. "(Officials) want tax revenue (from new development) at the expense of the person who's been here a long, long time."
JoAnne LaRosa, said she is a member of a proud family who would not blink in the face of an attempted land-grab.
"(Our house) has been in our family since 1944. They want to take it," she said. "We're not giving it up."
At the Neptune rally, Asbury Park City Councilman John J. Hamilton Jr. tackled another side of the issue, focusing on problems his city has had with developments in the past several years. In addition to raising rents for Asbury Park's longtime residents, Hamilton said, these development projects have not done enough to give back to the city's schools.
"We have to get out and get other people to join us," Hamilton told the group. "We have to make it our problem. We want to build our cities, but we want to be proud of them."
There were a number of development projects throughout the city where eminent domain had been used to force people out, Hamilton said.
Longtime Asbury Park resident George Kary has been fighting a number of eminent domain issues for the past 20 years. He is trying to save his home and his mother's house on Sixth Avenue.
"It's starting to come down to the wire now, but we're not leaving," Kary, 50, said. "We've got to make noise."
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