3/24/2005

When government takes what it doesn't own: The Bergen (NJ) Record, 3/24/05

By george Mytrowitz

EMINENT DOMAIN - it's a 1,000-year-old concept that poses a contemporary threat to property owners throughout New Jersey. Rooted in English common law, eminent domain is the right of governments to take your house, your business and your livelihood.

President John Adams so feared the government abuse of property rights that he said: "The moment the idea is admitted into society that property is not as sacred as the Laws of God, and there is not a force of law and public justice to protect it, anarchy and tyranny commence. Property must be sacred or liberty cannot exist."

Adams' concerns for private property are ignored by today's petty political tyrants who abuse the power of government to take what it does not own.

In Carteret, an 84-year-old World War II hero, fighting cancer, faces the prospect of being booted out of his house by the mayor's redevelopment scheme.

In Ridgefield, government officials are considering redevelopment schemes that could destroy existing businesses.

In my own case in Newark, the auto body shop owned by my family for 90 years is being targeted for extinction as a part of the city's effort to condemn 14 acres of our neighborhood.

These are but a few of the scores of injustices being committed today in the name of redevelopment in New Jersey.

The politicians argue disingenuously that the taking of homes and businesses is but a small price to pay for the benefits of redevelopment: "more jobs and lower taxes" for the rest of the town's taxpayers. These presumed benefits are never guaranteed and no studies have ever verified if the promises match reality.

Promising more tax revenue is not the same as lowering property taxes - it's just a chance for governments to acquire and spend more money. Similarly, the promise of jobs is usually a distortion. Often high-paying blue collar jobs are wiped out, replaced by low-paying retail or service jobs. Mechanics in my shop earn three times the minimum wage plus benefits. Those wages will not be matched by the Dunkin' Donuts or Gap store that could replace us.

The real beneficiaries of eminent domain are developers and planners who work with compliant politicians to carve out redevelopment districts and then get the government to do what every developer dreams of - force people to sell their property to them. These schemes amount to nothing more than the massive transfer of wealth from one set of private property owners to a private entity that will make millions on the transfer.

Eminent domain is supposed to be employed for a public use - a school, highway or library. But it is hard to see the public use in taking homes and business and replacing them with newer homes and businesses while allowing friends of politicians to make a fortune.

The corrupt nature of these schemes is obvious. In almost every case the developers and architects favored by the government have made sizable donations to the politicians in the redevelopment area. There is never any open competitive bidding for development ideas.

In Newark, we have, as they say, followed the money. And what we discovered was typical. The development for The Mulberry Street area was voted down by the council in 2003. A few months later, after the developers made sizable donations - exceeding $50,000 - to the mayor and council, the project was resurrected and OK'd by the same city council that had turned it down earlier. One of the developers is a former city council aide seen recently dancing up a storm at Mayor Sharpe James' fund raiser. Eminent domain has become an extension of pay-to-play.

Even in cases where the need for redevelopment is substantiated, why is it only the outside developers who benefit from the plans? Why aren't people like me, people who have stayed in the cities year after year - paying taxes, providing jobs - not allowed to share in the prosperity of the city's renaissance?

Politicians are quick to point out that the law provides for just compensation, and relocation assistance for property taken. That's a joke. In many cases heavy industrial business are tough to relocate. Where, for instance does one move a steel fabrication plant or an auto body shop? How many neighborhoods are amenable to such uses?

The larger economic concern for the state is that eminent domain abuse provides a disincentive for investment in the industrial sector and leads to monolithic development patterns - office and retail space and cluster housing in town after town. Why would anyone invest in a new or existing industrial business that could, at the whim of a mayor and council, be targeted for extinction?

State Sen. Paul Sarlo of Wood-Ridge recently held a committee meeting to address concerns about manufacturing jobs in New Jersey. A good place for the senator to start would be addressing the negative impact of eminent domain on industrial jobs.

With a gubernatorial election looming this fall, now would be the time for any would-be state executive to begin addressing the abuses of eminent domain and their impact on people's lives and livelihoods.


The Bergen Record: www.northjersey.com


George Mytrowitz is the owner of Market Auto Body in Newark and spokesman for the Mulberry Street Coalition - a Newark based citizens group opposed to the city's condemnation of their property.