Eminent domain fears aired: Asbury Park (NJ) Press, 3/14/06

Assembly panel told by those affected that it's not fair

By Tom Baldwin

Gopal Panday says after he built Rainbow Liquors on Broadway in Long Branch into a million-dollar-a-year business, it turned worthless overnight in the eyes of New Jersey's much-maligned eminent-domain law.

"Under eminent domain laws, it doesn't provide you with anything for your business," Panday said Monday after testifying before the Assembly Commerce and Economic Development Committee.

"Just the land," he said.

Flood victim Linda Brnicevic of Bound Brook described how she says eminent domain there is being used to uproot minorities. Residents of Camden's Cramer Hill neighborhood asked why eminent domain has them being moved out of a stable and tidy area.

Eminent domain, the process whereby government exercises legal steps to take private property for what it envisions as the good of the community, is under fire in New Jersey for instances in which it is being used to promote economic redevelopment.

Eminent domain laws, written in Trenton but employed from municipal buildings, is seen by many whose land is acquired as a process where government hands poor neighborhoods to developers who then build and sell pricey condominiums for the affluent.

Municipal officials say there are safeguards that ensure eminent domain is used in blighted areas only. With municipalities seeking ratables to keep down property taxes, though, critics say the power is sometimes abused.

"There aren't that many stable neighborhoods in Camden. Cramer Hill is a stable neighborhood. Why are they going after a stable neighborhood?" asked Amy Goldsmith, director of the New Jersey Environmental Federation, an umbrella group of activists.

"The state law gives people virtually zero rights. It gives everything to the municipalities," said Olga Pomar, community economic development coordinator for South Jersey Legal Services Inc., a legal aid organization serving, among others, people being told to move.

The Assembly commerce committee is holding a series of hearings that may end, before summer, with legislation being proposed to change the eminent-domain rules.

Many at the hearing Monday sought a moratorium on the process, which Assemblyman John Burzichelli, D-Gloucester, was reluctant to embrace.

"The legislative process is moving. To do that, you'd have to review step by step each part of the process. I think you'd have trouble doing it as a broad step without being harmful to the parties," he said.

He added, "It was important that we heard from the people."

Burzichelli said he will get together with sponsors of eminent-domain reform measures and try to craft legislation that erases some of the horror stories — like that of Bruce McCloud.

McCloud said he had to be moved at gunpoint by Long Branch police when he lost his home to eminent domain. Condos replaced his 17-room home some 3 1/2 years ago. McCloud said he still has not gotten the $140,000 he was told by the municipal government to accept for the dwelling.

"It's not right, and I still have not been compensated," McCloud said.

Asbury Park Press: www.app.com