Showdown looms over eminent domain: NorthJersey.com (Hackensack NJ), 3/16/06

As [North Arlington] officials try to remake the town's image through redevelopment plans that could rely on taking property through eminent domain, some Porete Avenue business owners are digging in, saying they don't want to sell and shouldn't be forced out.

Industrial buildings along Porete Avenue are targeted for redevelopment in a project commonly referred to as the Arlington Valley development.

The borough has supported redevelopment, saying it would improve the tax rate, help clear the borough's $20 million debt and clean up contaminated industrial properties.

"Eminent domain is always a last resort," Mayor Russell Pitman said. "You have a project that's going to benefit 15,000 people, going to be an economic engine, clean up contaminated land and create some [tax] ratables. You have to look at the whole project. Will it provide a greater benefit? I think the answer is yes."

But business owners disagree. They have organized the North Arlington Property Rights Coalition, hired attorneys and started a public information campaign and are trying to convince Borough Council members to ban the condemnation of property for private projects.

The business owners worry about losing employees and customers in the move to a new location. Many of the businesses involved are construction or distribution companies that rely on access to major roads such as the New Jersey Turnpike, said Peter Goodman, who owns a plumbing supply distribution company on Porete Avenue.

Others say they might have trouble finding new locations that would allow the type of outdoor equipment storage and other practices permitted on Porete Avenue. The street has some new buildings, such as a distribution warehouse for the trendy H&M retain outlet, and the businesses generate $1 million in taxes for the town.

The coalition, which consists mostly of Porete Avenue businesses, says it is starting out with a war chest of more than $50,000.

"They called us a blighted area, which we're not. We're operating businesses down there," said Salvatore DiBlasi, owner of Cobra Construction on Porete Avenue. "It's a shame the people we elected to protect us, we have to spend our own money to defend ourselves against ... we're going to give them a fight for their money."

The borough has signed an agreement with Cherokee Porete, a subsidiary of Cherokee Investment Partners, outlining the 110-acre revitalization project. It calls for 1,625 homes, town houses and condominiums, including 160 "active-adult" units and 90 affordable senior units; 50,000 square feet of shops and restaurants; biking and hiking trails and other green space.

EnCap Golf Holdings, another Cherokee Investment Partners subsidiary, is working with the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission to cap and clean nearby landfills and create an 18-hole public golf course and other recreational facilities.

Cherokee expects to complete the permit process and plans for the Porete Avenue project by the end of 2006 and begin construction in 2007. It already owns about 50 of the 110 acres it needs.

The borough and Cherokee have gone to court to get access to Porete Avenue sites to appraise the properties and test for contaminants. Property owners are fighting that effort.

Though some property owners disputed claims of contamination, at least five Porete Avenue properties have some level of it, according to a 2005 report by the state Department of Environmental Protection on known contaminated sites.

Cherokee has said it will negotiate to buy property in good faith, but business owners said they come to the table with a weak negotiating position since Cherokee knows borough officials support the project and the use of eminent domain.

"If we don't come to an agreement, they'll kick it back to the town," said Porete Avenue business owner Goodman.

Cherokee will pay the borough $17.3 million in development fees, and the project will generate about $16 million in taxes, said Rich Ochab, a project spokesman.

While others have voiced concerns about traffic and the burden on schools from the development, the agreement being worked out between the borough and Cherokee will have provisions to review the project if the need for services increases.

Another area slated for redevelopment is northern Ridge Road, but the specter of eminent domain is not as apparent there.

Ridge Road salon owner Robert Palumbo had proposed redeveloping several properties, including the Art Roberts Studio. Arthur Miller, who owns the photo studio and also lives in the building, has since gotten assurances from the mayor and Borough Council that private residences will not be taken through condemnation.

In addition, developer George Capodagli has an agreement with the borough to redevelop the shopping center at Ridge Road and Jauncey Avenue, home to Sanborn's Deli and the Jade Lee Restaurant but little else. Capodagli wants to turn the empty storefronts with peeling paint into a four-story condominium building. The owner of the property, Susan Pinkus, said she is willing to sell the property if the price is right.

Meanwhile, the Porete Avenue business owners are hoping to reverse the council's actions by reaching out to members sympathetic to their cause. Councilmen Steven Tanelli and Peter Massa are against exercising eminent domain for private development. Tanelli has suggested letting residents decide whether the borough should restrict the use of eminent domain.

"Eminent domain should not be used by government as a weapon to relocate property owners or seize private property," Tanelli said. "I see no public purpose, and that is a problem."

But most borough officials have backed the Porete Avenue project.

"North Arlington has been the armpit of Bergen County for some time, so it's time it was cleaned up," Councilman Patrick Roche said.

NorthJersey.com: http://www.northjersey.com