Owners of property in an oceanfront area of Long Branch will have to wait a little longer to learn if the city can take their homes for redevelopment after a Superior Court judge on Friday said he needed time to consider the arguments on both sides.
Superior Court Assignment Judge Lawrence M. Lawson told a packed courtroom that he would render his decision in the eminent domain case as quickly as possible but that it could take as long as 30 days. In the meantime, he intends today to visit the affected area … the Marine Terrace, Ocean Terrace, Seaview Avenue section … where many property owners are represented by the MTOTSA Alliance. The neighborhood is targeted for redevelopment as upscale condominiums under Beachfront North Phase II.
"Everybody is stone-faced," said Louis Anzalone, who with his wife, Lillian, owns 32 Ocean Terrace, one of the threatened homes, after more than two hours of legal arguments at the Monmouth Court Courthouse. "You can't tell."
MTOTSA homeowners have been fighting for years to save their homes, although City Attorney James G. Aaron said during the hearing they failed at least six times to raise objections in a timely fashion.
"What does all this mean legally?" Aaron asked rhetorically during the hearing. "Any challenge to the redevelopment plan is far too late, 10 years too late."
The city adopted its redevelopment plan in 1996 with what officials said was widespread support. At the time, the city was in a deep decline, its once-glorious past a distant memory with a devastating ocean pier fire in 1987 a final blow.
"This is a hot matter," Lawson said of the court case. "It is a very contentious matter. Someone is going to win. Someone is going to lose. That is the way it is going to be."
The city wants the judge to appoint three commissioners to establish values for the homes, maintaining the owners have failed to engage in good-faith negotiations. The home owners want the city's case dismissed.
Peter H. Wegener and William J. Ward, the lawyers for the property owners, also want Lawson to order a hearing on issues surrounding the redevelopment plan. Before the hearing, the lawyers want the right to conduct discovery and permission to depose the following witnesses: Aaron; Alan Davis, an attorney with the city's contract firm of Greenbaum, Rowe, Smith, Ravin & Davis; Gregory Russo of Applied Development; Roger Mumford of Matzel & Mumford, co-redeveloper of Beachfront North with Applied; city Business Administrator Howard Woolley Jr.; and City Council President Anthony Giordano III.
Like Aaron, Giordano has connections to Monmouth Community Bank, where Applied secured a line of credit, a possible conflict, according to Ward.
Ward also wants Aaron's firm's billing records with Long Branch from 1996 to the present and the Greenbaum's firm billing records with K. Hovnanian and Matzel & Mumford, which is a subsidiary of K. Hovnanian, from 1996 to the present.
Ward is seeking to prove a conflict of interest between Aaron's firm, Ansell Zaro Grimm & Aaron, which handled three legal cases involving K. Hovnanian between 2000 and 2002, and one involving Greenbaum's firm in which Greenbaum advised the city at the same time its senior partner, Arthur Greenbaum, also served on the board of directors of K. Hovnanian.
Aaron called it "a deep-sea fishing expedition" meant to delay the process.
City officials have said Greenbaum played no role in the selection of developers.
But both Wegener and Ward allege the city changed its redevelopment plan, which previously called for "infill" housing at the MTOTSA site to a planned development such as that favored by Beachfront North to maximize profits for Hovnanian-linked developers.
The city has denied such claims.
"This is a tragedy because people who want to keep their homes will lose their homes, because people who want to stay in their homes chose not to even explore" options such as the condo swap, said Aaron of the developer's offer for discounted condominiums in the development … an offer taken by two homeowners.
Ward called the offer a public relations move because many who live in that community already own their homes and could not afford the condos, without taking on new mortgages.
Wegener called the condo swap "nonsense," and said an offer of tax relief was "probably unconstitutional."
"This is a typical, normal neighborhood," Wegener said of MTOTSA. "It is not a rich neighborhood. It is not a blighted neighborhood." He said there was little public benefit for the community but there was a $120 million "windfall" for the developer, based on the value of condos in the first phase.
"That's just plain wrong," he said.
Lawyer Scott G. Bullock of the Institute for Justice, the Washington, D.C.-based group that focuses on individual and property rights, attended a pre-hearing rally outside the courthouse and said later his organization had helped prepare legal briefs for the case and would likely seek permission to join the property owners' legal team.
The rally drew some 50 to 60 people, many carrying signs, some reading: "Our homes today. Yours tomorrow," "Find your own land," and "Condos are not a public use."
Lori Ann Vendetti, a MTOTSA member with homes in Long Branch and Newark, described the neighborhood as a close-knit beachfront community.
"It's not going to end here. We're going to fight this forever," Vendetti said at the rally. "We're going to fight this injustice, and we're going to win."
Long Branch "is one of the most … if not the most … egregious examples of eminent domain abuse in this country," Bullock said after the hearing.
"Where can I go at 93 years of age?" asked Albert Viviano of 99 Marine Terrace at the rally. "Eminent domain can sweep the land right out from under you."
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