Mayor won't seize restaurant to aid school: Newark (NJ) Star-ledger, 11/5/05

Jersey City withdraws eminent domain for football-field expansion

By Matthew Reilly

Jersey City Mayor Jerremiah Healy pulled the plug yesterday on the city's role in the proposed condemnation of a restaurant and bar to make way for an expanded football field at a Catholic high school.

The city's redevelopment agency was attempting to seize the Golden Cicada and backroom apartment where owner Cheng Tan lives so the city could then turn the property over to St. Peter's Prep, which wants to expand its practice football field. Healy said he was withdrawing the city from the eminent domain action.

"I support eminent domain where it is necessary and benefits the community as a whole," he said last night. "There are instances when the city's taking of private property for public purpose is appropriate, but this is not one of those instances."

Tan said he is happy the city has dropped its effort to condemn his property, but is still worried that changes in the property's zoning will limit what he can do with it.

"It's a good first step, but the issues are not resolved yet," Tan said. "The zoning was changed to prevent me from doing anything. That's the whole problem. My property will never have its highest and best use. I don't know who would benefit from the property other than St. Peter's. It's another thing I have to talk to my attorney about."

The school argued it had spent $4 million and years acquiring property for needed athletic fields and was being unfairly held up by Tan. St. Peter's built a new football field adjacent to the Golden Cicada, but the field is seven yards shy of regulation and must be lengthened for the varsity team to play its home games there.

The president of the school, the Rev. James Keenan, has said he had offered to buy the garages in the rear of the property, which would have given the school the needed room without affecting the restaurant and bar, but Tan refused.

Keenan could not be reached for comment last night.

The school is still free to negotiate with Tan to buy the property and extend its field, but it no longer has the backing of the city redevelopment agency — and the threat of eminent domain — behind it.

The redevelopment agency had offered $550,000 for the property, plus relocation costs. The liquor license could also be sold for about $150,000, city officials said. But Tan believes the 5,000-square-foot property is worth much more, as it is located next to booming real estate.

Tan said he has considered building condominiums there, and thousands of units are under construction or planned in the neighborhood.

Bill Matsikoudis, the Jersey City corporation counsel, said with the school and the redevelopment agency formally declaring they will not proceed with the eminent domain action, the agency can withdraw from the litigation and Tan will have title to the property.

Tan was represented by lawyers for the American Civil Liberties Union and Rutgers Constitutional Litigation Clinic, who argued the city redevelopment agency was violating the constitutional prohibition on favoring a religion.

Ed Barocas, ACLU legal director in New Jersey, said it is inappropriate for the government to take land from one person to give to another, and even more inappropriate to benefit a specific religion.

Healy said he was eager to settle the issue, which he said he inherited from a past city administration.

Newark Star-Ledger: www.nj.com/starledger