Mt. Laurel defends use of eminent domain: Courier-Post (Camden NJ), 5/2/06

By Anna Nguyen

The [New Jersey] state Supreme Court on Monday heard arguments in a case that could have national implications for a municipality's right to use eminent domain to slow development and preserve open space.

A developer, MiPro Homes LLC, wanted to build 23 single-family homes on a 16-acre parcel at Elbo Lane and Hainesport-Mount Laurel Road in Mount Laurel. The township seized the property to preserve it as open space.

MiPro sued the municipality, and a lower court ruled the township acted legally.

Jeffrey Baron, an attorney representing MiPro, said he believes the case will be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court regardless of how the state court rules.

During Monday's proceedings, the justices' questions focused on whether the township acted accordingly when it obtained the land and whether MiPro took a risk by proceeding with the project.

Baron argued the township acted in "bad faith" by waiting to condemn the land until after the developer received necessary approvals. The land was zoned for residential development in the municipality's master plan, he said.

"If the condemnation can take place without any planning, what would stop a municipality from taking any property because they don't like the use?" he said.

Township officials contended they took appropriate steps by placing the land on its Open Space and Recreation Plan through the state Green Acres program.

The township also warned MiPro it might pursue action to condemn the land, solicitor Michael Mouber said.

The township granted the developer final approval in May 2002. A few weeks later, the municipality moved to condemn the property for open space.

"We try to do what's best for the community," Mayor Peter McCaffrey said.

When the land was taken, MiPro had begun work on the drainage system and other utilities.

Courier-Post: http://www.courierpostonline.com