Ronald K. Chen, the state's first public advocate in more than a decade, announced Monday that his first initiative will be reviewing the use of eminent domain for private development.
During a ceremonial swearing-in at Rutgers Law School, where he was associate dean for academic affairs, Chen said: "We're going to take a thoughtful process and garner all the facts. This is a complex issue. It's obviously one of the great concerns to the people of New Jersey. But they deserve a very thoughtful process. So I have reached no conclusions, no findings."
Chen said he will report to Gov. Corzine the fair and proper way for government to use eminent domain. He said he didn't have a timetable or protocol for his review yet.
During the campaign, Corzine pledged to protect residents by limiting the use of eminent domain to "rare and exceptional circumstance," with safeguards for homeowners.
The governor didn't call for a ban on government taking land for private development, then or during Monday's announcement.
"I think it is better that we do a thorough review," Corzine said. "It's better to have an overall policy than prejudice this process."
A group of beachfront homeowners in north Long Branch have gone to court to try to stop city officials from acquiring their homes through eminent domain as part of a massive redevelopment project. The homes would be replaced by multistory condominiums.
The Assembly Commerce and Economic Development Committee has begun hearings on whether eminent domain laws need to be changed. Chen said his office would work with lawmakers as they study the issue.
Besides eminent domain, Chen said he will focus on civil liberties, the elderly and ratepayers.
Chen said his office will join lawsuits in certain matters, but "we will not be in business of providing legal knee-jerk response to the headlines of the day. . . . Litigation will be a last resort."
Chen is the first public advocate since 1994, when lawmakers and then-Gov. Christie Whitman cut the department. It was re-established under a law enacted last July and officially opened the doors to its Trenton office Monday.
Colleagues at Rutgers Law School, where he worked for nearly 20 years after earning his law degree there in 1983, described Chen as intelligent, hard-working, effective, enjoyable and tenacious. He held positions with the United States Rowing Association and the American Civil Liberties Union. He has focused on constitutional law, including due process, eminent domain, right-to-know and religious freedom.
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