Governor backs reform on eminent domain: Asbury Park (NJ) Press, 5/3/06

By Karen Sudol and Carol Gorga Williams

Gov. Corzine believes some towns have abused the power of eminent domain in seizing private homes for redevelopment projects and expects the new public advocate to propose reforms in the near future, he said Tuesday.

Speaking to a meeting of the state Associated Press Managing Editors' organization, Corzine said that reforming the use of eminent domain — the government's power to seize private property for public uses after paying "just compensation" — remains one of his top priorities. He said that's why he asked new Public Advocate Ronald K. Chen to make investigating the use of eminent domain his first job in office, and said he asked Chen to work quickly in recommending reforms.

In a three-day series this week, the Asbury Park Press reported that New Jersey has the distinction of being known as the worst eminent domain abuser in the nation, with towns seizing private homes and businesses and then giving the land to private companies to redevelop. The Press series examined the taking of property for private developers, the conflict over determining the just price for property and the push by lawmakers and property rights advocates to enact eminent domain reforms.

"I think there have been abuses," Corzine told editors at the meeting.

The governor said he is confident the new public advocate, after studying how eminent domain is used, will propose a reform plan that "helps a lot of the people that feel abused."

"At its most base level, I don't think we should be taking people's homes away from them so we can put up restaurants and theaters," said Bill Donnelly of Lacey. "I think those things are wonderful for the community but I don't think it is American to take someone's property from them."

The battle over eminent domain has become a national issue in the wake of a June 23 U.S. Supreme Court decision that upheld the government's right to take private homes for economic development. Along the Shore, redevelopment projects and the threat of eminent domain are progressing in five Monmouth County towns: Asbury Park, Neptune, Neptune City, Belmar and Long Branch, where a massive redevelopment project has made the city a flash point in the debate.

Members of the Legislature are pushing for eminent domain related reforms.

"It's a major issue. Let's start the dialogue, absolutely," said Assemblyman Sean T. Kean, R-Monmouth, who has a package of four bills to reform the practice but who does not support an outright moratorium.

State Sen. Ronald L. Rice, D-Essex, chair of the Community and Urban Affairs Committee, said he will work out the final details of legislation he plans to introduce during committee hearings this month or in June. The hearings will include input from affected property owners.

"Eminent domain is one of the most controversial developmental tools used by municipalities because current state law allows too many loopholes for abuse," he said in a statement released Monday.

The state Assembly's Commerce and Economic Development committee also has held hearings, including soliciting testimonials from 42 property owners, with the goal of introducing legislation that would reform the state's redevelopment law. A third hearing will be held sometime this month, calling on Assembly members to discuss eminent domain reform bills they have already introduced.

However, neither committee appears to be considering eliminating the use of eminent domain tied to redevelopment projects.

Assemblyman Michael J. Panter, D-Monmouth, who introduced legislation to reform eminent domain following the Supreme Court decision, said he plans after the Legislature's budget break to introduce additional measures that call for a 24-month moratorium on the use of eminent domain while lawmakers consider reform.

He believes such reform is possible this term but despite calls for the governor to impose a moratorium, it is the Legislature, not the governor, which has that power.

That position is supported by Robert H. Levin, an attorney and section chief of the Local Government Section within the nonpartisan state Office of Legislative Services. He said the governor could declare a moratorium only if he could demonstrate there was a "dire emergency." Otherwise, it would not survive a legal challenge.

But the governor is free to order the departments he controls from the executive branch to refrain from using eminent domain, or he could temporarily halt state funds going to projects that are using eminent domain, although that too would likely generate a legal challenge, Levin said. But in the meantime, the governor would have a "de facto moratorium," Levin said.

In the meantime, Corzine could send a message, Panter said.

"I think it would be a step in the right direction if the governor could lead by example by stopping state government from using eminent domain for private development, but the lion's share of eminent domain we think of as inappropriate is happening at the municipal level," he said.

The New Jersey Coalition Against Eminent Domain Abuse continues to call for Corzine to declare a moratorium of eminent domain takings tied to redevelopment until there is comprehensive legislative reform, said the coalition's coordinator, Bill Potter, a Princeton-based lawyer.

In addition, Potter said, the governor could place a hold on state funds associated with projects using eminent domain.

"At this point, I don't know whether it will be cosmetic changes or real reform," Potter said. "I'm holding back my applause."

Senate President Richard J. Codey, D-Essex, said he would push legislation related to eminent domain provided it is fair and balanced. For example, he said, he would support a bill that rectifies eminent domain abuse but recognizes it as "a good tool for the taxpayers of the state" when used correctly.

Asbury Park business owner Rita Marano, whose properties are threatened by eminent domain in that city's waterfront redevelopment zone, said she does not have high hopes of legislative reform.

"I think they're doing nothing," she said. "All the laws they want to pass are really nothing."

She also said she did not have a high level of confidence in the governor.

"He could but he won't do it," Marano said of eminent domain reform. "The developers are very powerful the way the law is written. They have full control of us."

Neptune resident Dorothy Argyros, who lost her Neptune home to a Route 33 road project, is taking a wait-and-see attitude about reform.

"I sincerely hope that they will decide to serve their proper government function and protect the people's property rather than act like real estate agents and attack property ownership," she said of legislators.

Long Branch Mayor Adam Schneider, who is often depicted in anti-eminent domain circles as the poster child for eminent domain abuse, said he hopes for legislative reform, as well. He said he would like to see a measure put in place requiring the municipality has to defend its decision to declare an area in need of redevelopment in court.

That way, the city would have the burden of proving its decision valid, and would bear most of the costs, as opposed to individual homeowners fighting the government, as is the case now.

Schneider also would like to see changes in the way just compensation is measured.

"I don't know what changes legislators are going to bring to this," he said. "I don't think they know at the moment."

Asbury Park Post: www.app.com