Lawmaker proposes stricter eminent domain terms: Cherry Hill (NJ) Courier Post, 6/13/06

By Gregory J Volpe

[New Jersey] Assemblyman John Burzichelli has changed the definition of blight in his eminent domain proposal that was quickly panned last week because it lacked a clear, objective definition of when government can take land for private redevelopment.

Burzichelli, D-Paulsboro, announced the changes Monday as his Assembly Commerce and Economic Development Committee meeting held its first hearing on the bill. The panel postponed a vote until June 19.

The changes aim to restrict government from using reasons like "stagnant' or "underutilized' when taking homes.

"I don't think there's any more vagueness here," Burzichelli said.

Satisfaction and confusion
Some critics of the original version were pleased, others confused.

"It's gotten better, but it's still a long way to go," said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey chapter of the Sierra Club.

William Giordano, who said his Long Branch home is "under siege" by government, asked lawmakers for simple legislation that makes it clear eminent domain would rarely be used for private redevelopment.

"If I pay my mortgage, if I pay my taxes, and I keep my property up to code standards, I should be able to keep my home," Giordano said.

Bill Potter, chairman of the New Jersey Coalition Against Eminent Domain Abuse, said the flurry of changes to the proposal has him stumped.

"I'm still not sure what is the new definition of blight," Potter said.

Public Advocate Ronald K. Chen, who issued a report in May calling for a limited, objective definition of blight, issued a statement saying the proposal meets that standard.

"It revises the definition of blight so that it is more clear and objective, and appropriately restricts the ability of municipalities to use eminent domain for private redevelopment to those areas that are truly blighted," Chen, who had jury duty in Union County, said in a statement.

The advocate's only criticism was that the proposal did not impose stricter pay-to-play rules restricting political campaign donations for those involved with redevelopment projects.

Assemblywoman Amy H. Handlin, R-Middletown, a member of the committee, called for a six-year blackout of political contributions between a redeveloper and the municipal government, as well as an anti-nepotism clause to ensure relatives of government officials couldn't profit from a redevelopment project.

"I see this as a common sense, kitchen table provision that's necessary to give ordinary citizens confidence in the fairness of the process," Handlin said.

Burzichelli said pay-to-play issues could be addressed through other legislation.

Common ground
The bill, which Burzichelli said is still "fluid," has some points that even critics agree with: requiring that residents receive at least what it would cost to replace their home in the same community; providing more notification a municipality is looking to redevelop and possibly take homes; and shifting the burden on government to prove redevelopment is necessary.

A similar Senate bill, sponsored by Sen. Ronald K. Rice, D-Newark, is scheduled for a hearing, but no vote, Thursday. An original version that circulated last week did not call for residents to receive a level replacement but did implement more objective standards than Burzichelli's original proposal.

State Sen. Stephen Sweeney, D-West Deptford, is expected to push a measure identical to Burzichelli's.

Groups representing builders, real estate agents and municipalities all supported Burzichelli's bill Monday.

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