Activist’s fight is personal in scrap over eminent domain: New Jersey Jewish News, 9/19/05

By Enid Weiss

As a longtime activist with the National Council of Jewish Women, Michele Bobrow has fought for a bevy of national causes.

This time her cause is hitting a little closer to home.

Bobrow and her husband, Harold, live in Maplewood and — for now — have a townhouse in Long Branch. Keeping her beach home however, has required that she fight the proverbial fight against city hall: Hers is one of several townhouses slated to be bulldozed to make way for a new development.

The plans are part of the 12-year-old Long Branch Redevelopment Zone’s $1 billion project. It includes demolishing 140 homes to make way for nearly 300 townhouses and condominiums as well as retail and recreation spots. The first stage, Pier Village, is already up and the next stage requires bulldozing 15 homes, one of which is Bobrow’s.

“They’re going to take our home and put it to ‘better use.’ Number one, our home is not blighted,” Bobrow said. “Number two, who’s to determine better use? And number three, what happened to ownership rights and property rights?” The Constitution allows municipalities to condemn private property, she said, “but ethics and morality don’t.”

To defend her and others’ homes, Bobrow has formed a statewide coalition of property owners engaged in redevelopment battles with various municipalities. The group, called NAEDA, or Neighbors Against Eminent Domain Abuse, has lobbied politicians to support a state bill that would limit local condemnation powers.

The issue of eminent domain has become a hot-button one for many politicians since a June ruling by the United States Supreme Court that allowed New London, Conn., to condemn property for the town’s economic benefit. The decision gave the green light to municipalities to take property in order to spur economic development.

Long Branch Mayor Adam Schneider defended the town’s redevelopment project, although he added that if he could, he would work around the 15 homes.

“This was no secret,” said Schneider, who is Jewish. “We’ve been working on this since 1993. I ran in three elections on this.” Schneider said the plan was part of his platform to turn around a town that had fallen victim to urban blight and high crime rates. Where there once were “go-go bars and liquor stores” there are now restaurants, he said.

“It’s the hypocrisy that gets me,” Schneider said. The plan “was okay until it affected [the homeowners]. We started buying properties along the oceanfront six years ago.… We did this the right way — slow planning; we involved the public, held hearings, and when we passed the resolution, only one of the 700 property owners challenged it. Unfortunately many property owners waited until too late to protest.”

While the Bobrows and other homeowners in the areas designated for redevelopment are able to negotiate price and other conditions regarding the purchase of their property, it’s not a fair bargaining table, Michele Bobrow said. The owners can contest the price but ultimately are forced to make a deal because retaining ownership is not an option. It’s an emotional issue, with people facing the loss of homes they’ve lived in for years.

“Their lives are shattered,” Bobrow said. “You put your faith in a government you elect and they turn around and betray you. It’s infuriating.”

Bobrow said hers is a personal battle and not connected with her longtime membership in NCJW, whose state public affairs committee she formerly chaired. But it follows her progressive politics in the sense that the situation “is unfair to the little guys; [homeowners] are fighting the large developers with deep pockets.”

The bill Bobrow supports, S-2739, is in committee and is sponsored by New Jersey Sens. Nia H. Gill (D-Dist. 34) and Diane Allen (R-Dist. 7). The Allen-Gill measure would exempt from condemnation legally occupied residential property that is maintained in accordance with applicable housing codes and standards.

“Taking private property from one private owner and transferring it to another seriously jeopardizes the security of all private property ownership,” said Gill. “Being able to own property is part of the American dream that is undeniably desired by everyone. It is a dream which must be protected.”

Added Allen: “We must take action that provides the necessary protections to ensure that the ownership of private property is not relegated to the whims of a powerful few.”

Gill said the bill is especially needed in the wake of the June Supreme Court decision. A bill similar to the Allen-Gill legislation, A4392, is in the Assembly, and two other Assembly bills would change the state’s constitutional amendments defining redevelopment regulations.

NAEDA also is calling on acting Gov. Richard Codey to put a moratorium on eminent domain activities until several cases on the issue in NJ courts are ruled upon. The group has scheduled rallies to promote its cause on Oct. 15 in Long Branch and Oct. 19 in Trenton.

But Schneider said Codey doesn’t have the authority to override local governments on the issue. He also doesn’t expect the bills infringing on urban redevelopment to make it to law, because their enactment would destroy the state’s cities.

“It’s saying you can’t do urban planning anymore; you’d have to do it on a block-by-block basis,” Schneider said. “If we can’t do urban planning and put it into play, what you’re saying is the poor areas stay poor and get worse.”

Despite the costly and time-consuming battle, Schneider said the redevelopment plan is a success. “Long Branch has become a destination for the first time in 30 to 40 years,” the mayor said.

Maybe it is good for the town, Bobrow said, but at what cost?

“We’ve been going to city council meetings but we’ve been stonewalled,” she said. “They feel it’s for the good of the town, but what about the residents and businesses that supported the politicians, paid our taxes, and now are being shafted?”

New Jersey Jewish News: www.njjewishnews.com