By Carol Gorga Williams
At a recent [Long Branch] City Council meeting, where talk of eminent domain again dominated the public session, part-time resident Harold Bobrow rattled off some recent favorable events for his side.
The House of Representatives has voted overwhelmingly to deny federal funds to communities that use eminent domain for economic development, and closer to home, Bogota, in Bergen County, has voted in a nonbinding referendum against the use of eminent domain.
"You've heard it here again: You feel what you're doing is the right thing to do, but take under consideration all that is going on right now," said Bobrow, who could lose his vacation home in Beachfront South if redevelopment proceeds there. "All these things are happening right now."
But there was another dynamic in play during Election Day closer to home. Eminent domain did not appear to be a determining factor in a number of races.
In Neptune, where people campaigned heavily against Mayor Thomas J. Catley for his position on redevelopment, he held off a challenge from Democrat Ava Johnson. Catley has said eminent domain is a tool but one he hoped he would not have to use in the redevelopment of West Lake Avenue.
Johnson, meanwhile, had called for a moratorium on the use of eminent domain and argued that the original West Lake Avenue redevelopment plan would have let residents stay in their homes, with new development to have been built around them.
Johnson, who said her campaign did not spend money on signs linking the mayor with eminent domain, said Catley succeeded because big money won out.
"I believe the developers also had a hand," she said.
Meanwhile, in the 11th District, which includes Neptune, Long Branch and Asbury Park, the three towns where eminent domain is emerging as an issue, Republicans won re-election to the Assembly. Their Democratic opponents had made fighting what they called eminent-domain abuse a top priority.
In the 12th District, Democratic Assemblyman Michael J. Panter narrowly won re-election while his running mate, Assemblyman Robert L. Morgan, did not. Panter and Morgan had introduced anti-eminent domain legislation in the Statehouse.
Panter's victory came from Mercer County votes, not Monmouth County ones, while the 11th District Democrats, Matthew J. Doherty and Jim Reilly, captured the majority of votes in typically Democratic towns such as Long Branch.
Bobrow said he doesn't think people should read too much into the failure of the anti-eminent-domain candidates.
"People vote for people not on one single issue," Bobrow said. "It was an extremely important issue, but people just don't vote for someone on a single issue."
Bobrow said action in the House — the bill heads to the U.S. Senate now for consideration — is part of the "upheaval" going on in the country in the wake of a recent Supreme Court decision that upheld the use of eminent domain for economic development projects.
"If it wasn't for this upheaval . . . none of this would be going on," Bobrow said. "There were some defeats, but that may not have been the sole issue why these people were defeated. I feel this is a strong issue for me and a lot of other people."
William Giordano, whose family has owned a home in the proposed second phase of Beachfront North in Long Branch — also known as the Marine Terrace-Ocean Terrace-Seaview Avenue area or MTOTSA — said he believes the closeness of the races shows eminent domain resonates with voters.
"The way I look at it, the fact they were against the use of eminent domain made it a close race," Giordano said of the Democratic races for the Assembly. "We all know Monmouth County is a Republican area, more so than a lot of other counties in New Jersey."
Long Branch Mayor Adam Schneider — who has been roundly criticized, primarily by MTOTSA members, for his support of eminent domain as what he called a necessary tool for redevelopment of distressed urban areas — described himself as the "poster child" for the anti-eminent-domain movement in a speech Wednesday in Atlantic City in a State League of Municipalities-related event sponsored by K. Hovnanian, a developer with ties to Long Branch.
Schneider is up for re-election in May, and said during the speech that he intends to seek another term. He recalled the redevelopment was an important issue when he first began his public life. He told people then it would be a 15-year process.
"I realized when you've got a four-year term, a 15-year plan is a problem," Schneider said in Atlantic City.
"I definitely want to (run) one more time because there is too much work up in the air."
Schneider talked about how his other campaigns have focused on redevelopment, and even though eminent domain was a part of that, he did not generate the amount of controversy it has since MTOTSA came on the scene.
He said in 1998, when redevelopment was an issue, he won re-election with 70 percent of the votes. Four years later, the same thing happened. "Six months from now, I'm going to run again," he told the crowd at Bally's Park Place. "I don't know if the Institute of Justice is going to fund the campaign against me, but I can live with that."
The Institute for Justice is a nationwide group fighting eminent domain. It has been advising eminent-domain opponents in the city.
"We've taken a city where the crime rate was a major issue in my first term," Schneider said. "In the last 11 years, the crime rate has gone down every single year, and now I have 100 cops," referring to the city's decision to continue to fund salaries of police officers who were initially hired with federal grants.
"We're talking about a town where you can walk anywhere," said Schneider, who added that portions of the oceanfront were not safe before redevelopment.
Avery Grant, who ran against Schneider in 2002, also focused on redevelopment as an issue. He said he ran, in one sense, so Schneider would not be unopposed in the election. But he also said he had ongoing concerns about the amount of affordable housing being generated by redevelopment. Grant said he will not run again in 2006.
Grant said he believes the issue will dominate in the May race because by then, the city will likely be actively in court, defending its decision to use eminent domain in the MTOTSA area.
"The thing is going to be a national issue," Grant said. "My problem with the publicity is we've got to show there are two major players in it: the city and the developers. We have not pinpointed the developers are just a part of it. They are just as much bad players as the city is in displacing people."
Schneider, who noted he has not taken campaign contributions from any builders involved in the city's redevelopment, said eminent domain has only been used in between 8 and 10 percent of the cases.
He said the redevelopment process, which he said was "open and transparent," has deteriorated because "it fits so well into sound-bite journalism and sound-bite politics. If you're against what we're doing, you can sum up in 10 words or less why you're against it. On the opposite side, it gets complicated."
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