City school board must submit to eminent domain: Asbury Park (NJ) Press:, 4/7/06

Redevelopment given precedence

By Nancy Shields

Asbury Park's Board of Education offices will have to relocate to make way for new townhouses and condominiums going up next to Wesley Lake, a state appeals court ruled in a decision made public Thursday.

The panel upheld a 2004 ruling of Superior Court Judge Lawrence Lawson, sitting in Freehold. That ruling said the city had the right to acquire the one-story building at 407 Lake Ave. by eminent domain because Asbury Park's waterfront-redevelopment needs outweighed the board's use of the former bank building as its central office over the past decade.

"Only administrative functions are performed at the board's offices on Lake Avenue; no actual instruction is conducted there," the appellate judges said. "And while we recognize that relocation to another office will inevitably involve some disruption, that assertion could be made by any party whose property is taken through eminent domain. We are confident that sound planning can minimize such disruption significantly."

School board President Robert DiSanto said Thursday he did not know where the board will relocate its offices.

"It's our administration building, and the city is putting our administrators out on the street for private development," DiSanto said.

A second property owner, H.D. Dunn Associates, a janitorial service, in the same block, also was a plaintiff in the suit.

"We concur entirely with the trial court that in the present situation, the greater public interest is served by permitting the city to proceed with its exercise of eminent domain against these two properties," the panel said.

The appellate court has ruled previously this year in favor of the city's 2002 plan to develop its waterfront on a block-by-block basis, the judges said.

"We did not deem it necessary to restate in this opinion the history of Asbury Park's efforts at redevelopment," the court said. "Those prior efforts have, for a variety of reasons, failed; we decline to place such a substantial obstacle in the city's current path, particularly when we cannot perceive a countervailing benefit."

The unanimous ruling allows Westminster Communities to move ahead with plans to build townhouses and condominiums on the Wesley Lake block. The company is currently building on an adjacent block to the east.

"The court had to answer a serious question as to whether or not a public entity, the city, has the right to take, by eminent domain, the right of another public entity, the Board of Education, and here it did so, very easily, based on the facts presented that the Board of Education property was an administrative office and not essential for the education of the students," said James Aaron, the city's redevelopment attorney who argued the case for Asbury Park.

"And the court felt that because a public purpose was being furthered — redevelopment — that outweighed the use of the property by the Board of Education as an office building," Aaron said. "Had the issue been different, had it been a grammar school or elementary school or high school, the result may have been different."

When the board announced it was buying the former Sovereign Bank building in 1996 and moved its offices from a site on Park Avenue, the move was seen as one that would bring more working people to a downtown that, at that time, had little activity and life.

Asbury Park Press: www.app.com