Eminent domain is here to stay, A.C. panelists say: The Press of Atlantic City (NJ), 9/29/05

By Elaine Rose

It's every homeowner's worst nightmare. A letter arrives in the mail saying the city is planning a new development for your neighborhood and is taking over you home.

It's called the power of eminent domain, and governments have the right to do it if they compensate the owner fairly.

That power is here to stay, a panel of four speakers said Wednesday at the Governor's Conference on Housing and Community Development held at the Atlantic City Convention Center. Attracting about 1,100 visitors, the conference brings together municipal officials, housing authorities, property owners and others involved in rebuilding communities.

But governments taking over private property should keep the public informed about the entire process and treat everyone with respect if they want to avoid litigation and political repercussions, the panelists said in a how-to session for developers and municipal officials.

The U.S. Supreme Court created a stir earlier this year when it upheld the right of New London, Conn., to condemn private homes for a redevelopment project even though it was for private enterprise. Nationwide, responses ranged from new legislation to a group attempting to condemn Justice David Souter's New Hampshire home to build a hotel.

But the Supreme Court held a wide interpretation of eminent domain since 1896, when it allowed a mining company to run buckets across a farmer's property against his wishes, said James Maley Jr., mayor of Collingswood and an attorney that works with redevelopment projects. As long as the state has a reasonable purpose for the land, the project is in the economic interest of the community and due process is followed, condemning properties is legal.

As a consultant to municipalities, Susan Gruel said she often advises her clients to slow down the redevelopment process. Rather than just send out condemnation letters and let an irate public show up at meetings, Gruel takes a different approach.

Gruel said it is best for towns to go beyond the legal minimum, and seek public input at every step of the process. Invite residents to a meeting and ask them what kind of projects they want to see. Sometimes ordinary citizens come up with great ideas.

Having a specific developer in mind is a big no-no and could have the project thrown out in court, Maley and Gruel both said.

"Often the public is concerned there are deals being made behind closed doors, no one knows what is going on and the result will not be in their best interest," Gruel said.

But if done right, there is no doubt that redevelopment is a good thing, said Edward Einhaus, director of Housing Development for the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority. The CRDA has taken nearly 2,000 private properties using threat of eminent domain.

Einhaus showed the audience before-and-after photos of the Northeast Inlet section of Atlantic City to demonstrate the results.

If the CRDA wants to take over a property, it gives the owner a 13-page booklet explaining the process and their rights in clear language, Einhaus said.

Above all, treat the property owners with respect, and remember that they're human beings with a stake in the project, Einhaus said.

"If you're taking someone's home, you're uprooting them," Einhaus said. "You're really rocking their world."

The Press of Atlantic City: www.pressofac.com