The adage that no man's property is safe when the Legislature is in session should be amended to include the U.S. Supreme Court, given last week's ruling that state and local governments may use eminent domain to take private property and convey it to a private developer to spur economic development.
The case originated from Connecticut but in New Jersey, where a handful of extremely powerful, well-connected developers seem to be able to get whatever they want, the decision is particularly disconcerting. The news, however, is not as bad as it appears.
The ruling will not carry much weight in this state, where homeowners are protected by legislation and the state constitution.
New Jersey law limits the use of eminent domain to blighted areas. That doesn't mean your property is completely protected. Apparently, one man's happy homestead is another man's blight.
The definition of blighted, which includes any property that is substandard, unsanitary, dilapidated, long-vacant, obsolete, not fully productive or damaged by fire, is so vague it invites abuse. Take Long Branch for example. There, 36 long-time, middle-class homeowners are being driven out to make way for a luxury condominium development. The homeowners there don't think their properties are blighted.
In Lodi, residents of a trailer park are facing the prospect of being displaced to build a gated senior citizen community with 250 housing units and retail shops. By getting rid of the trailer park, municipal property taxes on the parcel of land will jump from $250,000 to $3 million a year. And, it doesn't hurt that the builders are generous political contributors to both parties and include the brother of state Sen. Paul Sarlo (D-Bergen).
But New Jersey property owners must remain vigilant. As Justice Clarence Thomas so aptly pointed out, in his dissenting opinion, people who live in poor communities with the least political clout are the most vulnerable.
Eminent domain can be a great boon. It can clear the way for phenomenal, much needed redevelopment, but it also can be abused. Whether it is will depend on local officials, who were granted broad powers by the courts, and ultimately by voters
Newark Star-Ledger: www.starledger.com