By Christine Varno
Faced with losing their homes to redevelopment, a group of Long Branch residents has retained an attorney who is an expert in fighting eminent domain cases.
Peter H. Wegener, of Bathgate, Wegener and Wolf in Lakewood, has agreed to represent MTOTSA — a group comprised of residents of Marine and Ocean terraces and Seaview Avenue. Wegener is representing the property owners as a group and also is representing about 10 of the homeowners individually.
“I have been representing property owners all over New Jersey for 30 years in eminent domain cases,” Wegener said. “It is my entire practice.
“I think the individual property owners who make up MTOTSA have a very strong argument — that the taking of their properties does not serve legitimate public interest.”
For more than a year, when members of MTOTSA have brought their concerns to City Council meetings, Mayor Adam Schneider has repeatedly advised them to hire an attorney to represent them.
With redevelopment plans in Beachfront South moving forward and appraisals under way, the group interviewed six lawyers before choosing Wegener.
“We feel out of all of them, [Wegener] was the most sincere and believed in our cause,” MTOTSA member Lori Vendetti said.
MTOTSA — a group formed by residents living in a neighborhood comprised of 36 properties on the city’s oceanfront — said they have hired legal representation to save their homes from what they say is an abuse of the city’s power of eminent domain.
Properties in MTOTSA, one of six redevelopment zones designated by the city, are slated for eminent domain, which is the power of a governmental body — in this case, the municipality — to confiscate private property for public use.
The designated developer for the project is Matzel & Mumford Corp., a division of K. Hovnanian, Middletown.
Under the Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, just compensation must be paid for properties taken through eminent domain, and they must be taken for public use. The legal process of eminent domain involves condemnation of the property as blighted, or unfit for habitation.
Redevelopment plans in Long Branch call for the MTOTSA properties to be razed and replaced by upscale condominiums and townhouses.
“There is a great deal of good that comes out of redevelopment projects,” Wegener said. “There comes a time when it reaches an abuse.
“It seems to have become more prevalent and a favored practice of municipalities.”
Wegener said he had a number of ongoing conversations with members of MTOTSA over the course of several months about their cause.
Talks with Wegener took place at the time MTOTSA was seeking help from Institute for Justice (IJ) attorney Scott Bullock.
IJ is a nonprofit law firm based in Washington, D.C., that specializes in the protection of private property when eminent domain is not employed for public use.
Bullock advised the group that IJ could not represent MTOTSA until eminent domain had been enacted by the city.
“I spoke with [Bullock] and agreed to act as local counsel for MTOTSA,” Wegener said. “When the city started moving forward with the taking of their homes, I decided to represent the group.
“My firm has been watching the growth and use of the power of eminent domain in a redevelopment context for the past 10 years..”
Wegener said he believes what is going on in Long Branch with the MTOTSA properties is an abuse of eminent domain.
“When you use the power of eminent domain and say a home is only worth $300,000, but we can put a similar use on that property and get a $2 million assessment for it, that is an abuse of eminent domain,” he said.
A few of the MTOTSA homeowners have received appraisal figures for their properties from the city, and Wegener said some of the numbers were in the $300,000 to $400,000 range.
“That is far below the real value,” He said. “It is not even close.”
“The idea that the city wants to take away these homes at a price that [MTOTSA residents] could not possibly replace what they already have, just because it serves the pocketbooks of developers, is wrong.”
Once MTOTSA homeowners are offered a price from the city for the purchase of their properties, MTOTSA members have said no matter what the figure is, they are not selling.
At that point, the city will exercise the power of eminent domain and MTOTSA will challenge it, Wegener said.
“There is just no basis to take the properties in MTOTSA and say the neighborhood is blighted,” he said. “The neighborhood clearly is not blighted and the homes are meticulous, well-decorated and comfortable, and it is all at a seaside location that is second to none.”