Eminent domain fears stir So. River debate: East Brunswick (NJ) Sentinel, 5/11/06

Planner to present redevelopment ideas at May 19 meeting

Michael Acker

Discussions to redevelop certain areas of downtown South River [New Jersey] have several business owners and residents crying foul.

Professional planners retained by the borough have identified three potential redevelopment areas - the corner of Old Bridge Turnpike and Prospect Street; the site of the former Lincoln School on Prospect Street; and a portion of Main Street near Thomas Street that includes properties such as a vacant Eckerd's building and a Krauszer's store.

The borough's hired planner will discuss those ideas during a May 16 Planning Board meeting at borough hall. Residents are invited to speak at the meeting, when the board may vote to recommend the redevelopment to the Borough Council, which can then rezone the areas for redevelopment and solicit proposals from developers.

Borough officials including Mayor Robert Szegeti have said redevelopment is desired in order to bring new life to parts of the borough's downtown and to draw more property tax revenue from those properties. If pursued further, the borough would conduct studies to see how much property tax revenue the projects would generate and assess what new costs the borough would incur for services such as emergency response, street repair and public schooling.

"From there, we can weigh what project will ultimately benefit the people of South River," Szegeti said in a recent letter to the Sentinel.

But the idea, and the possibility of eminent domain, has already raised the ire of some residents and business owners whose properties may be included in the redevelopment zones.

Jay Patel, owner of the Krauszer's store, told the Sentinel that he learned about the redevelopment plans from local residents last December.

"I do not want to move. I am doing all right here. My building looks OK; I spent so much money on it," Patel said.

Patel said he and other property owners will refuse to sell their properties to the municipality.

"I do not understand. This town needs more businesses. Business here is fantastic. The people here want this Krauszer's. Everybody has been signing my petition for the last two weeks. They support me. They want me to stay here," Patel said.

The business owner feels this issue should be of concern to all property owners in the borough.

"Today, it is my property; tomorrow it is someone else's," Patel said. "I want to send a message for them to stop what is going on in town."

George Greco, owner of Greco Jewelers and Clock shop, rents property from Patel for his Main Street business, which he has operated for 20 years.

"Business is good," Greco said. "What [the governing body] is considering doing is extortion, at best. They have been taking property from people for years. No one has come to us to help us upgrade the business. I do not think this area fits the criteria for redevelopment. It is not blighted, unsafe or hazardous."

Greco said he does not think any new businesses on the selected area of Main Street will bring in more property tax revenue than the current businesses are paying.

"They should develop extra businesses," Greco said, "not replace good ones. They can attract businesses to South River without putting anybody out."

The redevelopment issue dominated discussion during the public portion of the Borough Council's April 24 meeting.

Resident Joseph Manzo stood before the council to voice his concerns over the areas selected by planners for possible redevelopment. His two-family home on Prospect Street and neighboring shop, which is no longer in business, are also included in the preliminary plan for redevelopment.

He feels there is a need for redevelopment in some areas of the borough, but not on some of the properties now being chosen.

"You are going to knock seven business people out of town," Manzo said. "I was in New Brunswick when they started redeveloping. I was offered to come back, but my rent was tripled."

Manzo said he has no interest in selling his property to the borough for redevelopment.

"I do not want to sell my property. You are going to have to condemn it on me," he said.

Manzo said he fears the borough will use eminent domain to gain his property in the years to come. He told the council that he believes that they are "cherry-picking" properties when they should be looking for blighted areas that are in need of redevelopment.

Resident Edward Duffy also voiced his opposition to any redevelopment that is done through eminent domain. He said Patel has improved the area since taking moving in and operating the Krauszer's.

Duffy said businesses are not going to want to move into newly redeveloped properties with the threat of eminent domain hanging over their heads.

"[Eminent domain] is a gun to the head of every businessman and every resident in town," Duffy said.

He said he views any action to acquire Patel's property or nearby parcels for redevelopment as taking the business owners' livelihoods away from them.

"A better South River cannot come out of actions like this," Duffy said.

Szegeti said it is too soon in the process of considering redevelopment for eminent domain to even be an issue. He added that merchants currently at these locations would be given fair market value for their properties or be given a place in the proposed new development, if feasible.

"Most redevelopment projects never need eminent domain," Szegeti said. "We will do everything possible to ensure it is not used in South River."

Szegeti said the debate over how to redevelop the borough has been ongoing for many years. The governing body has discussed the project in the aim of attracting more businesses to town and as a way to bring property tax relief to residents.

"Our downtown is an untapped gem, a strategic artery between East Brunswick and Sayreville. Now is the time to maximize its potential," Szegeti said.

The mayor would like to see portions of downtown transformed into attractive shops with professional offices and owner-occupied apartments on the top floors.

"We want to draw a steady stream of pedestrians to our downtown, creating the vibrancy that thrives in successful shopping cores and makes local businesses thrive," he said.

Residents and property owners affected by the proposed redevelopment plan will have an opportunity to voice their concerns at the May 16 Planning Board meeting.

East Brunswick Sentinel: http://ebs.gmnews.com