Officials take on eminent domain: Today's Sunbeam (Salem NJ), 11/16/05

By Terrence Dopp

One [NJ] state Senate Republican has introduced legislation placing a two-year moratorium on the use of eminent domain by governments to acquire private land for non-public development projects. The process has caused a furor in communities such as Westville, the Cramer Hill section of Camden and other areas undergoing so-called economic redevelopment of "blighted areas."

"We don't really say what a blighted area is," said Sen. Diane Allen, R-Burlington. "It seems like we're trying to go in and weed out our poor folks and build houses for people of means. That's not what we're about in America."

The issue has been at the focus of attention since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled this summer in the case of Kelo v. City of New London, that the Connecticut community was within bounds in using the condemnation process for economic development. The city wanted to take a "blighted" neighborhood for redevelopment, arguing it amounted to the greater good because it would produce greater tax revenue.

Under her legislation, introduced last Thursday, an 11-member study commission would examine potential changes to current eminent domain laws. Eight commissioners would be appointed by legislative leaders of both parties and three ex officio members would include the attorney general, commissioner of the Department of Community Affairs and the commissioner of the Department of transportation.

"We don't have any (checks) right now and that is the problem," Allen added. "What we really need to do right now is to have the moratorium. Let's take a deep breath and look at what we really want to happen."

While acting Gov. Richard Codey's executive and Senate offices did not comment officially on the matter, Allen and others said the prospects of the bill being heard before January were slim.

"Anything is better than what we have now," said James Pennington Jr., one of two Democrats elected to the Westville Borough Council in two decades. He and running mate Woodrow Dooley focused heavily on a contested plan to include homes and businesses in the Timber Creek area in the borough's redevelopment zone.

Pennington said the cases should be heard before state or county boards specializing in condemnation instead of allowing local councils to have the final say.

Today's Sunbeam: www.nj.com/news/sunbeam