Activists, lawyers and elected officials provided a sneak preview Wednesday of what [New Jersey] state lawmakers will be dealing with today as they begin considering changes to eminent-domain laws.
At a redevelopment conference sponsored by New Jersey Future, a nonprofit planning group, the debate about eminent domain — the practice of government taking private property in the name of public good — resurfaced eight months after the U.S. Supreme Court upheld government's right to take private land for commercial development and the day before a state Assembly panel will begin looking at how the practice is used in New Jersey.
Some see eminent domain as a necessary tool for governments to revive run-down areas, but others say it's an abused power that takes land from the poor to give to the rich.
"Eminent domain as a redevelopment tool has historically fallen disproportionately on racial/ethnic minorities, the elderly and the poor," said Douglas Gershuny, a lawyer who represents residents threatened by eminent domain. "Without legislative reform, that will continue."
Edward McManimon, a lawyer with the New Jersey State League of Municipalities, said eminent domain has helped towns such as Collingswood and New Brunswick revitalize. There are safeguards in the law, he said, that ensure it is only used for blighted areas.
"Local governments in New Jersey cannot use redevelopment powers simply because they want to engage in economic development," McManimon said. "There's a daunting process in addition to that that they have to undertake, so it's not like the mayor or a council member can take your property."
Richard Gober, who became an activist when he thwarted an eminent domain proposal pursued in his Ventnor neighborhood, said that he isn't against the concept of eminent domain but that government uses it too often and exaggerates the term "blighted" in the name of getting more ratables.
" 'Don't worry, we'll only use eminent domain as a last resort.' That statement I've heard about as many times as people saying to me, 'How can they do that? How can they take your home in the United States of America?' " Gober said.
Collingswood Mayor Jim Maley, who used eminent domain to redevelop his Camden County borough and initially represented Gober in court to protect his home, said officials in fully developed towns feel pressure to use eminent domain as a way to relieve pressure of rising property taxes.
"One of the things that motivates a governing body to do the redevelopment is the yelling from all of their residents that they need to do something about property taxes," Maley said. "The constant, constant issue of property taxes."
While debate occurred inside the Trenton Marriott at Lafayette Yard, property owners touched or threatened by eminent domain protested outside.
Kusumaker Kuchaculla, 60, of Neptune, said his town wants to take the liquor store he's owned for 20 years to build senior housing and stores.
"It's not for the public use," Kuchaculla said. "If it was for a school, it would be another matter."
He was accompanied by Dorothy Argyros, 77, of Neptune, who lost her home more than a year ago to widen a highway.
"They want valuable property so they can give it to their friends," Argyros said. "You don't own your property anymore; you rent it until some rich guy wants it."
Those seeking eminent-domain reform want it to be used as a last resort, to provide fairer compensation for displaced property owners, and not to lead to homelessness.
Assemblyman John J. Burzichelli, D-Gloucester, who will lead hearings on eminent domain, said he doesn't expect a ban on eminent domain for economic redevelopment.
"Is everybody going to be happy in the end? I don't know; I doubt it," Burzichelli said. "Will there be changes when we finish? I think there may be. Will there be wholesale changes? I don't know."
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