Bill would guard against abuse of eminent domain: Asbury Park (NJ) Press, 6/6/06

Some critics doubt proposal would protect homeowners

By Gregory J Volpe

[New Jersey] Assemblyman John Burzichelli has proposed legislation giving residents more protection against government's use of eminent domain, though it left some critics unconvinced that it will accomplish that.

Burzichelli, D-Gloucester, chairman of a committee that held a series of hearings this year on the topic, proposed a bill last week that would ensure property owners receive fair market value; give them more notification when a municipality is looking to redevelop; and shift the burden on government to prove redevelopment is necessary.

"The goal here has been to restore public confidence that government is not just waiting in a corner somewhere to take your home at a whim," Burzichelli said. "When you look at this structure from top to bottom, there will be no whim involved."

Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey chapter of the Sierra Club, said the proposal wouldn't ban pay-to-play for those involved in redevelopment projects nor significantly alter the definition of the term "blighted" — which over the decades has come to mean property that could generate more tax dollars if redeveloped.

"Basically, you're going to be told up front you're going to be screwed, where now you'll be told later," Tittel said.

Bill Potter, chairman of the New Jersey Coalition Against Eminent Domain Abuse, said the bill does not do what state Public Advocate Ronald K. Chen recently recommended: provide a limited, objective definition of blighted areas.

"There are some useful procedural improvements, but I don't think it deals with the fundamental issues of what properties are blighted," Potter said.

The bill's language says underutilized property can still be taken, but Burzichelli said it would prevent towns from irresponsibly taking land.

"There's been considerable work done by all parties to make the delineation process tighter and giving less of an opportunity for ambiguous interpretations," Burzichelli said.

Will Senate follow suit?
Michelle Bobrow, who owns a seasonal house in Long Branch's Beachfront South zone that is threatened by eminent domain and who is active in a statewide group opposing eminent domain abuse, said Burzichelli's bill is a positive step but only if it is echoed in the Senate.

"If there is action in the Assembly, that does not guarantee action in the Senate, and therefore it will be as good as nothing happening," she said. "The other thing is, of course the public has become outraged learning what is going on in our state regarding eminent domain abuse."

She also talked about the court cases that could affect the direction of redevelopment in Long Branch, particularly one in which 24 property owners in the Marine Terrace, Ocean Terrace and Seaview Avenue area are challenging the right of the city to condemn their parcels for use in the second phase of the Beachfront North luxury project.

A decision in that case in imminent.

Long Branch Mayor Adam Schneider noted he has not yet read the bill so he didn't want to comment extensively on it. But he endorsed the legislator's ideas for giving displaced property owners the right of first refusal in a new development, and for more transparency, both of which were done in Long Branch, he said.

Pay-to-play an issue
Assemblywoman Amy Handlin, R-Monmouth, a member of the Assembly Commerce and Economic Development Committee, said redevelopment plans need a six-year political contribution ban from companies and individuals involved.

"No matter how many safeguards we build into new legislation, the public perception remains that redevelopment is a matter of back-room tricks and sweetheart deals," Handlin said.

Burzichelli said redevelopers would be subject to pay-to-play laws already enacted by the Legislature.

His bill was crafted in response to last year's U.S. Supreme Court decision that upheld government's right to take land for commercial redevelopment. The Supreme Court said the constitution allows eminent domain but that states could limit its use.

The New Jersey State League of Municipalities, which has argued that eminent domain is a necessary redevelopment tool, said the proposal is a fair compromise to calls for banning the practice.

"Generally speaking, the direction that they're moving in is a great step forward," said William Dressel Jr., the league's executive director.

The proposal is expected to be formally introduced Thursday. Burzichelli — who expects the proposal to change — said it will be the only item discussed when his commerce committee next meets, which could be June 12. He said it's possible the Legislature will approve the bill by July.

Asbury Park Press: www.app.com