Lawmakers collect data on eminent domain in NJ: Asbury Park (NJ) Press, 2/24/06

By Michael Symons

[new jersey] Lawmakers have kicked off what promises to be a months-long examination of eminent domain, and its use by government to promote economic development, with an academic-like review of current practices.

Assemblyman Guy Gregg, R-Morris, said the public has a deep interest in the issue.

"Whenever I bring up the term 'eminent domain,' it is electric, wherever it is," said Gregg, who wants the state constitution amended to bar condemnation for economic development.

In a two-hour hearing Thursday, the Assembly Commerce and Economic Development Committee heard from invited guests about the legal framework for eminent domain use in New Jersey.

"If we're going to change something, we should understand what it is that we're considering changing," said Assemblyman John Burzichelli, D-Gloucester, the panel chairman.

Last year, in the landmark New London, Conn., case, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of government's power to seize property for private economic development projects but invited states with concerns about that practice to adopt laws limiting it.

The controversy over that use of eminent domain has been raised in Long Branch, where the city has filed condemnation orders against 23 properties in the Beachfront North Phase II section, proposed for Marine and Ocean Terraces and Seaview Avenue.

Homeowners there have been very vocal in their opposition to the city's plan, part of its ambitious waterfront redevelopment, and have gone to court to stop the taking of their properties. Arguments are expected to be heard in state Superior Court, Freehold, on March 24.

Long Branch officials have said, though, the city did not use economic development provisions as motivation for its oceanfront redevelopment.

In Neptune, the redevelopment of West Lake Avenue has prompted concerns over eminent domain.

And in Belmar, a proposed redevelopment plan designed to remake the downtown is being undertaken without acquiring homes but is facing two lawsuits filed by area businesses.

A handful of bills intended to govern the use of eminent domain were proposed in the Legislature this year and last. Burzichelli is planning three or four hearings focused on criteria for using that power and compensation for residents and business owners who lose their property.

Steve Eisdorfer, an attorney at Hill Wallack and a land-use expert, said the issue "touches the most sensitive nerve" but is specifically mentioned in the national and state constitutions. The state constitution allows the power to eliminate blight.

"Existing New Jersey law is consistent with the law of virtually all other jurisdictions in the country," said Eisdorfer, who also said lawmakers in 37 states have eminent-domain proposals before them.

The next hearing will be open to anyone who wants to speak on the subject. The date hasn't been set.

Asbury Park Press: www.app.com