Eminent domain takes a hit: The Jersey (Jersey City NJ) Journal, 10/26/05

By Jarrett Renshaw

Hudson County residents are overwhelmingly against expanding government's ability to force people to sell their property, according to a recent poll by The Jersey Journal/New Jersey City University.

A recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling has eased restrictions on when governments can invoke the power of "eminent domain" and force owners to sell condemned properties at "fair market value." Now, instead of only allowing the practice when it benefits the public good - such as a school or highway - governments can use eminent domain in the name of housing developments, corporate headquarters and other private ventures.

Eminent domain was used in Jersey City and Weehawken to condemn waterfront properties to make way for the "Gold Coast" development of the 1980s.

More recently, the deed to the Golden Cicada, a tavern in Downtown Jersey City, was seized in July by the Jersey City Redevelopment Agency with the intention of turning it over to St. Peter's Prep, a private Catholic high school for boys. The school intends to demolish the tavern in order to add 7 yards to an adjacent athletic field.

And this month, the Bayonne City Council announced it was considering using its power of eminent domain to take title to a parcel at North Street off Avenue A that was previously approved for condo development, and instead put a "pee-wee" soccer field there.

When asked whether the government should be able to take private property as spelled out in the recent high court ruling, nearly 50 percent of the county's residents said no way, according to the poll.

Meanwhile, nearly 20 percent said yes, and another 14 percent said they didn't know.

Opposition against the ruling comes from every demographic group, but the strongest opposition comes from those making more than $75,000 a year - "perhaps because under eminent domain they would not earn what they believed was a fair market price for their property," according to the poll's supervisors and authors, Bruce Chadwick of the English department and Fran Moran of the political science department.

Although residents are against the taking of property in the name of corporations and developers, they aren't against eminent domain when it comes to its traditional usage to benefit the public good.

A plurality of respondents - 38 percent - said eminent domain should be used to favor schools. Roads followed at nearly 25 percent, then open space (17 percent). Just 8.9 percent of respondents said eminent domain should be used for more stores.

"This is certainly an interesting choice since new schools usually mean higher property taxes to pay for them. It may reflect increasing unhappiness with county schools, especially in the inner city," the poll's supervisors said.

The Jersey Journal www.nj.com