By Dwight Ott
The hour of reckoning for Camden's redevelopment efforts has arrived.
In a long-awaited court battle over the use of eminent domain in the Cramer Hill section, 200 residents and four large businesses are scheduled to square off today against state and local officials and representatives of developers participating in the $1.2 billion Cramer Hill redevelopment plan.
"The case is critical for the revitalization of the city," said the city's chief operating officer, Melvin R. "Randy" Primas. "What the trial is about is whether or not Cramer Hill is an area in need of redevelopment."
The plan calls for moving as many as 1,200 households to make way for 6,000 new houses, 500,000 square feet of retail space, a marina, and a golf course.
This is the first phase of a two-phase trial, said Olga Pomar, one of the attorneys for the residents.
"The judge has to decide whether the city planning commission and the City Council are correct in their decision that Cramer Hill is blighted or not," she said.
Depending on how many witnesses testify, the case - which involves a dozen or more attorneys - is expected to last about two weeks. The project is on hold until the issue is resolved in the court.
Resident Mary Cortes said the use of eminent domain in Cramer Hill was "an abuse of the elderly, an abuse of the middle class, and abuse of the children who don't know where... to move."
Said Rich Ochab, a spokesman for developer Cherokee Camden L.L.C.: "The city has made the commitment that residents will have the opportunity to stay" in Cramer Hill if they want to.
If state Superior Court Judge Michael Kassel decides that Cramer Hill is blighted and needs redevelopment, the defendants must prove in a subsequent trial that their plan is not arbitrary and capricious or a violation of the New Jersey and U.S. Constitutions.
If city and state officials lose, the project must go back to the planning board and Council.
Similar cases are being filed across the country by property owners as local governments use eminent domain to develop areas marked as blighted or in need of redevelopment.
Eminent domain allows governments to acquire private property for public benefit with just compensation for the owners.
The Cramer Hill plaintiffs argue that local government is abusing this power. The concern is that the rush to redevelop has blurred the meaning of "public benefit" in distressed cities looking for a revival and in suburbs seeking more revenue amid dwindling resources.
In Kelo v. New London, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled last year that government, through eminent domain, could legally take private property and hand it over to private developers to generate more local tax revenue.
The court found nothing unconstitutional about using eminent domain to force owners in New London, Conn., to sell their property (at fair market value) so it could be replaced with offices, a hotel and new residences - a project expected to create more than 1,000 jobs and increase tax revenue.
The court said economic development qualified as "public use."
Justice Sandra Day O'Connor disagreed, writing in her dissent that "all private property is now vulnerable to being taken and transferred to another private owner."
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