By Ronald Smothers
David Barry, the president of the Applied Companies, had just finished his presentation on a proposal to build an upscale residential and commercial project in this shore city. For the next phase of the redevelopment to continue, the town must condemn about four dozen neat, small homes on streets leading to the beach.
On a recent day, brightly colored artists' renderings were arrayed on easels across the front of the Town Council chambers, contrasting with the stony faces of the council members as they braced for the public's turn to talk.
Among the speakers was Bill Nordahl, a retired electronics company employee, whose apartment in a beachfront bungalow is in the path of the proposed redevelopment. He is a leader in the nearly two-year battle over the plans.
"What David Barry didn't mention is that he is president of Applied now because his father, Joe Barry, is in jail for bribing people," said Mr. Nordahl, referring to the elder Barry's sentencing in 2004 to 25 months in prison for making $115,000 in payoffs to Robert C. Janiszewski, the former Hudson County executive. "It is very clear that these people have too much power because they have so much money to throw around, and they are allowed to throw it around."
In Long Branch, there is no evidence or even a hint of illegal payments to anybody. But in the brave new world of redevelopment there is no tactic that is too extreme. Charging corruption or worse is all in the course of the war. "They will use any attack they can," Mr. Barry said in an interview, "and I have to sit there and listen to it."
Since a United States Supreme Court ruling in June known as Kelo v. New London emboldened municipalities to condemn property under eminent domain laws to make way for private development, anti-development groups have felt at once energized yet under siege, their avenues of legal recourse uncertain.
So in places like Long Branch, where the battle to block Applied's project was already emotion-drenched, the gloves have come off as anti-development groups try to block projects before the issue reaches the courts.
At the same time, many homeowners are looking to Trenton for the means to block redevelopment and the use of eminent domain. Legislation is pending to tighten the rules under which eminent domain can be invoked, and lawmakers as well as Acting Gov. Richard J. Codey have been asked to impose a moratorium on all redevelopment efforts relying on the use of eminent domain.
Local groups like those in Long Branch have held rallies and flooded state officials with letters and telephone calls in support of their cause. Yet those efforts do not have the support of local officials, especially those in distressed beachfront towns like Long Branch, Neptune and Asbury Park as well as in such urban centers as Newark, Camden and Jersey City.
William Dressel, the executive director of the New Jersey League of Municipalities, ways localities depend on growth.
"Given the fiscal condition of our state with its budget deficit and the absence of any lifeline whatsoever from the federal government, towns have been encouraged to work with the private sector ever since the redevelopment law in the state was passed in 1949 and amended in 1992 and 2003," Mr. Dressel said. "Where do people think development comes from? Some development fairy who waves her magic wand?"
Rather, local officials are working hand in hand with developers, who say they already face prohibitive economic and political restrictions and do not need more limits on building from the State Legislature.
Mr. Barry of Applied criticized homeowners, like those in Long Branch, who try to block redevelopment projects, describing them as "opportunists looking for higher prices for their property or the limelight and the very few who are really victims."
Political oddsmakers say that Governor Codey is unlikely to back a moratorium, although the two men currently running for governor have criticized the Supreme Court ruling and have said that they would curtail the use of eminent domain in New Jersey.
Against this backdrop, State Senator Diane B. Allen, Republican of Burlington, and State Senator Nia H. Gill, Democrat of Montclair, are pushing a bill they introduced this summer to address what they consider inequities in the eminent domain laws.
While the bill does not try to limit eminent domain, it calls for greater public involvement in the process. It increases the requirement for public hearings on condemnations and redevelopment plans, and narrows the definition of blight that could subject properties and whole areas to condemnation.
"The bill would make the process for condemnation more transparent," Ms. Allen said. "The bottom line is that the Supreme Court decision has jeopardized the security of many homeowners, and we should all be afraid."
Ms. Gill said that although she and Ms. Allen were trying to use widespread grass-roots concern about eminent domain to cajole developers into making compromises, "it won't be a cakewalk."
There is already a great deal of resistance. Mayor Sharpe James of Newark, who also represents his city in the State Senate, said that the bill appeared to be "a non-starter."
As Mr. James put it, the measure "handicaps mayors and developers" alike by undermining existing expectations about just compensation and limiting their ability to determine what is for the greater good.
But Joseph Maraziti, a former chairman of the New Jersey Planning Commission whose law firm represents several towns on redevelopment issues, said some of the proposed changes may be inevitable, although they may now seem like heresy to developers and local officials.
"All of the forces are stacked against the developers now, so some modest upside for property and homeowners may be called for," Mr. Maraziti said. "In the end, it is the future success or failure of these kinds of projects that matters the most to what we do."
If any eminent domain legislation is eventually passed, it may be too late for Mr. Nordahl and his neighbors along Ocean Terrace in Long Branch. These days, they scamper nervously from expanded bungalow to converted Cape Cod to see who in their neighborhood has already received the formal condemnation letters from the town. Once a letter arrives, a homeowner has 14 days to file a legal challenge.
In the last week, only 14 among about 40 property owners on the treeless, sun-baked blocks just west of the beachfront had received such notices. But they can see the signs of change outside their windows: just to the south, four- and five-story buildings with condominiums selling for $400,000 and up are under construction and advancing northward, as relentless as the ocean surf.
One of the Ocean Terrace homeowners, Rose LaRosa, and her daughter Joanne are less worried about compensation than the memories accumulated in their house. Sitting at the kitchen table, they recalled how Rose LaRosa's father bought the house sight unseen in 1944.
Mrs. LaRosa's children and her children's children have grown up vacationing in that house, where she now lives year-round and where time was marked by when the fountain in the yard was built or the hydrangeas were planted.
"They say this area is blighted," Joanne LaRosa said incredulously. "Does it look blighted to you? If anything, the town is trying to make it blighted because for the past decade they have denied permits and many of us have sought to make improvements."
The redevelopment plan seeks to replace the homes with 185 condominiums in three buildings, a community pavilion, a parkand a beachfront restaurant with windows jutting toward the ocean like the prow of a ship.
Mr. Nordahl likened the town's development plan to the Trojan horse. At first it appeared to residents as colorful maps in which their homes were in an area color-coded for in-fill housing, meaning only compatible new homes would be built on existing vacant lots and new sidewalks and lighting would be added.
"The in-fill areas were color-coded green, while the new construction areas were taupe, I think," he said. "We thought we were O.K., and as recently as a year ago, planners in town were still telling us we were still an in-fill area."
But the plan approved by the Town Council earlier this month would raze every house in the neighborhood.
To Joanne LaRosa the proposed development is an insult to family and memory, and an aesthetic blow as well. The neighborhood is an organic, almost whimsical collection of houses that have evolved over the years with second stories, additions and other embellishments strikingly unlike the cookie-cutter condominiums moving north.
"It's getting like Disney World, an unreal, make-believe place," she said.
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