By Richard Pearsall
A decision by the U.S. Supreme Court in June that opened the door for broad use of eminent domain could lead ultimately to a crackdown on government's authority to seize private property for the public good.
Legislatures in roughly half the states, including New Jersey, are considering bills to limit eminent domain, taking their cues not only from constituents alarmed by the high court's decision, but from the decision itself.
In upholding the right of New London, Conn., to seize private property for economic development, the Supreme Court decided that it was up to legislative bodies, not the courts, to define the public good.
New Jersey, with its large and growing number of redevelopment zones, has seen eminent domain emerge as a major issue in recent months, particularly in communities such as Camden, Mount Holly and Lindenwold, where residents as well as businesses are threatened with eviction to make room for more upscale housing and commercial enterprises.
Among the bills introduced in Trenton in the wake of the Supreme Court's decision is one sponsored by Assemblymen Michael J. Panter of Shrewsbury and Robert Morgan of Little Silver, Democrats who represent parts of Monmouth and Mercer counties.
The bill would "prohibit government from taking homes or businesses to turn over to private developers," Panter said.
"Traditionally, eminent domain has been used only in extraordinary circumstances," Panter said, referring to public projects such as schools and highways. "That's what we'd like to get back to."
The approach has attracted bipartisan support, including sponsorship of similar legislation in the state Senate by Sen. Diane Allen, R-Edgewater Park.
A decision by a state appellate court this week - that Mount Laurel could seize for "open space" a property a developer already had permits to build on - only served to heighten concerns about the breadth of eminent domain.
State Sen. Leonard T. Connors, R-Surf City, believes the state should address eminent domain by constitutional amendment as well as statute.
"Eminent domain is part of our state constitution, so that language has to be changed too, to protect people who don't want to sell properties they have maintained."
The two leading gubernatorial candidates, Democrat Jon Corzine and Republican Doug Forrester, have both expressed concerns about eminent domain.
Some South Jersey residents view eminent domain in general with suspicion.
Westville resident Jim Marley said the Appellate Court's decision in the Mount Laurel case and the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in June go against the will of residents.
"I think they're giving municipalities too much power over what the people want to do," said Marley. He is the spokesman for We the People of Westville, a citizens group that opposes a proposed $40 million waterfront redevelopment project near Big Timber Creek.
In Camden's Cramer Hill section, where nearly 1,000 residences and businesses will be razed to make way for 6,000 homes and commercial sites, some residents have filed lawsuits to stop redevelopment.
Bonnie Miraglia, 48, of Cramer Hill, isn't so convinced of the benefits of eminent domain. Her home would be taken for a proposed elementary school, one she thinks the community needs. However, with delays in the neighborhood redevelopment plan and a lack of state funding for new schools, she said she and her neighbors are stuck.
She said those trying to sell their homes can't find a bank that would give a buyer a mortgage in an area targeted by eminent domain.
Others see eminent domain as a useful tool for progress.
Jose Nunez, 51 of Cramer Hill, pointed to a home close to his brother's shop on River Avenue. Abandoned and haphazardly boarded up, he thinks if eminent domain is used to tear down that house and build something new, that's good.
Mount Laurel resident John Goy said he believes his local government has the best interests of its residents at heart.
He feels uncomfortable when the federal government intervenes in cases of eminent domain.
"That just scares me. (The federal government) is not doing what's best. What are their real intentions?" said Goy.
"It's a good thing for halting development," said Mount Laurel resident Steven Schiavone. But Schiavone disagrees with the use of eminent domain when it forces people out of their homes.
"You need money to fight these things in court, and if you don't then you're out of luck," he said, about displaced residents.
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