The [New Jersey] public advocate released a report Thursday that concluded what everyone already knew: The eminent domain laws in this state must be changed.
Unfortunately, the report's recommendations fall short of what is needed to protect the rights of property owners.
[The report is online at http://www.state.nj.us/publicadvocate.]
In a preface to his recommendations, Ronald K. Chen detailed the abuses that prompted his call for reform. Those abuses warrant more than reform. They scream out for a complete ban on the seizure of any owner-occupied private property — residential or commercial — for private economic redevelopment.
The report noted state law allows municipalities to declare virtually any area "blighted," a prerequisite for using eminent domain for private redevelopment. It also pointed out how the definition of "blight" over the past 40 years has shifted from four narrowly drawn criteria to seven broader ones. The report said the Legislature's interpretation of the state Constitution's blighted area clause "has expanded to the point where it provides virtually no limitation on taking private property."
The report recommends tightening the definition of blighted, providing greater public notice when towns are contemplating the use of eminent domain and increasing compensation for seized property. But it still leaves the door wide open for the seizure of private property for economic redevelopment. It doesn't provide fair value for those who are being forced from their homes and it doesn't prevent property owners whose homes are not blighted from being subject to eminent domain if they live in neighborhoods that are classified as blighted by the governing body.
The use of eminent domain in New Jersey has reached epidemic proportions. Its spread has been accelerated by the scarcity of developable virgin land in the suburbs and rural corners of the state. A New Jersey Builders Association report says redevelopment accounted for more than 50 percent of the building permits issued in the state last year. For the first time in eight years, Ocean County failed to lead the state in new permits. Urban Hudson County headed the list, followed by Middlesex, Essex and Bergen counties. Ocean County was fifth and Monmouth County, which had ranked second in permits issued from 2000 to 2003, was sixth.
The pressure to acquire land belonging to others for private redevelopment will continue to intensify, not only in the cities but along the Jersey coast. Along with it will come fierce lobbying by developers and many public officials to head off major modifications to eminent domain law.
In dealing with this issue, the choice facing the Legislature is not, as some suggest, between allowing or not allowing the redevelopment of blighted neighborhoods. Rather, it is whether redevelopment will be handled as a partnership among property owners, the community and developers or shoved down property owners' throats. Redevelopment can proceed without eminent domain. It may not be as pretty. But when it comes to private property, individual rights should take precedence over being pretty.
Asbury Park Press: www.app.com