Eminent domain foes vow to fight: Haddon (Haddon Twp NJ) Herald, 7/12/05

By Dan Keashen

In the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court ruling on the use of eminent domain, citizens from all over Southern New Jersey have vowed to take action.

Representatives from across the state gathered last week to put their plans in action to protect home owners. "This is the first real step for us to take back our properties from the abuse of local governments in New Jersey," said South Jersey Our Homes Coordinator Pat Seidman.

Last Thursday night strategies were discussed and residents made commitments to promote equitable property rights at the second meeting of the South Jersey Our Homes Coalition. The Haddon Township meeting brought out a cross-section of advocates from Ventnor to Cramer Hill. Over 40 representatives showed up to discuss the best form of protest and lobbying that can be done so legislatures recognize their plight.

Eminent domain is a clause used during redevelopment to take private property from residents and small business owners. Traditionally the use of eminent domain has been confined to large projects that benefited the entire community like highways, schools, and utility installation. After the U.S. Supreme Court ruling on June 23, municipalities have been given a free pass to use eminent domain for projects that produce higher tax rateables like the construction of luxury condominiums and high end retail.

Cramer Hill, a neighborhood inside Camden City, is under the threat of being razed for a golf course, condominiums, and high end retail. In all, 1,300 homes and 65 small businesses are now under threat by Cherokee Redevelopment Corporation and the City of Camden. Cramer Hill representative, Jose J. Santiago, said the local politicians are trying to get rid of everyone in the neighborhood.

"These are our homes and this is our barrio," said Santiago. "There is no blight here. Nobody has any blight in the neighborhood. A house might need some paint, but that does not give someone the right to take it and tear it down for a golf course." Santiago is trying to unite residents to join the new coalition to push the issue in Trenton. A Pennsauken representative had the same feelings.

Colin O'Brien is a manager at the Stardust in the Pennsauken Mart. "We've been fighting eminent domain for five years, said O'Brien. "When I brought this up years ago people thought I was a conspiracy theorist, but now that it's happening everywhere in the county people understand what we've been dealing with." O'Brien said the group is great way to let local legislatures that people are voting on this subject.

The Pennsauken Mart and several other buildings have been under the threat of eminent domain for years by the Camden County Improvement Authority. County officials wanted to replace the Mart with a plan called the Crossroads, a project that had at its core a 6,500-seat minor-league hockey arena and conference center and would have included a hotel and stores.

Haddon Township Commissioner Kathy Hogan created a document that local officials can sign to show their support. "I want elected officials to vow not to abuse eminent domain," said Hogan. "This is one of our basic rights as an American and [that] abusive, corrupt local officials would dare to take some ones home is disgraceful." She said it's important to know where local officials stand on the subject and to build an alliance with legislatures that are promoting property rights.

Ventnor property rights activist, Richard Gober, said Ventnor Mayor Tim Kreischer, is involved in property owner ethnic cleansing. "They're taking viable expensive properties from people that work in the casinos," said Gober. "These elected officials want to get rid of 250 homes in a predominately Latino area and replace them with 350 luxury condos." He said of the homes in the area are blighted and the redevelopment project in Ventnor is a "total land grab."

Camden Regional Legal Services Attorney Olga Pomar said the group has great promise to make difference in curbing eminent domain abuse, but remained reserved about the prospect to stop it. "It's still too early to say what can and will be done," said Pomar. "I hope that this group can make people understand the subject better and to disseminate information about how eminent domain abuse happens." She said the lobbying effort by the group will be determined by the political climate of the gubernatorial race in November.

Seidman said the second meeting was a success and groups have been coordinated to start the legal and organizing efforts among the communities. "We've been able to get our efforts focused and now we're looking forward to building a bullhorn that will be heard by our local legislatures," said Seidman. "Our elected officials need to know that residents are not going to take this abuse anymore."

The next meeting for the South Jersey Our Homes organization will be on July 21, at 7 p.m. The meeting will be held at the Inn on the Avenue.

Haddon Herald: www.zwire.com