Masters of their domain: (North Jersey) Herald News, 10/8/05

By Ashley Kindergan & Jaci Smith

Kendall Kardt was so sure he and other [Lodi NJ] trailer park residents would win their eminent domain lawsuit against the borough,that two weeks ago, he moved back into Costa Trailer Court.

Turns out he was right.

Superior Court Judge Richard Donahue ruled Thursday that the borough could not condemn the Costa and Brown trailer parks on Route 46 and use the land for redevelopment.

Donahue said the borough failed to prove that there was sufficient blight to warrant condemning the trailer parks, and the borough's redevelopment plan for the land was "vague."

"The (borough) attempted to replace a needy community, an elderly community, an affordable-housing community with upscale housing and the judge saw through it," said Michael Kates, the attorney representing the park's residents.

Borough officials said they planned to meet with their lawyers next week to review the court ruling and evaluate options for an appeal, said Gerald Salerno, attorney for the borough's Planning Board.

"It may be a setback, but we are not going to be deterred," said Mayor Gary Paparozzi."It's not over."

The 150 residents of Costa and Brown trailer parks filed the suit in 2004 to challenge the city's decision to designate the parks as zones in need of redevelopment.

The borough had claimed redeveloping the parks for commercial use would bring in needed tax revenue, while residents countered that their homes were not blighted and that providing affordable housing in the community was a productive land use.

Several months ago, Paparozzi was quoted in this newspaper saying that the trailer parks were "a poster child for redevelopment."

On Thursday, Donahue rejected the borough's arguments.

"The evidence put forth by the defendants in support of their designation of redevelopment can be summed up as vague criticism of the conditions at the complex upon superficial observations," Donahue wrote.

The judge also noted that although the borough supplied enough evidence to show that the land was being taken for "public use," required under state law, it failed to provide plans for the land's reuse that were specific enough to meet the standard of the law.

News of the decision spread quickly through the Costa Trailer Court Friday morning, as residents knocked on their neighbors' doors to share the news.

Ruth Mazza, 87, who lives on just a little more than $1,000 per month in Social Security payments, said she had been worried about finding a place she could afford and also managing to move without family to help her.

"Where was I going to go for $427 a month?" Mazza asked. "I'm all by myself. How the hell am I going to get myself out?"

Another resident, Donna Mulhall, 55, said she had lived in a recreational vehicle all her adult life and that she resented the implication that her living situation made the residents "trailer trash."

"It's like anyone else living in a community. Whether it's a $1 million community or the ghetto, it's still your community," Mulhall said.

"There are 500 people who live in the trailer parks," said Kendall Kardt, president of Save Our Homes, the group that fought with the trailer park owners to block the borough's use of eminent domain.

"This town was talking about displacing 2 percent of its residents. That's crazy," he said.

Donahue's ruling is one of several locally that suggests judges are making a harder interpretation of eminent domain lawsuits since a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling, said William Ward, a lawyer specializing in eminent domain cases.

In Kelo v. New London, Conn., the Supreme Court ruled that a municipality could condemn land and use it for redevelopment as long as the reuse was proven to be in the public's best interest.

Experts have speculated that the ruling unfairly broadened the power of a municipality to take land and trampled property owners' rights.

Ward said in the past two weeks, judges in Union, Passaic and Essex counties have dismissed local government efforts to take property by eminent domain.

In Passaic County last week, Assignment Judge Robert Passero dismissed the city of Passaic's eminent domain complaint against property owned by Jan Havlicek, who had sought to develop the People's Bank Building at 585 Main St.

The city's redevelopment agency submitted a reuse plan for the building and began eminent domain proceedings against Havlicek. Passero ruled a week ago Friday that the city had not filed the appropriate paperwork to condemn the building.

"It's an unholy alliance," Ward said of some types of redevelopment plans. "It's taking land from one private owner and flipping it to a developer. That's private gain at the public's expense."

The Herald News: www.northjersey.com