6/13/2006

Legislators should limit use of eminent domain: (Cherry Hill NJ) Courier-Post, 6/4/06

Plan to rehabilitate an aging Winslow neighborhood should become a model for revitalizing communities

When residents of the Lehigh Manor development in Winslow heard their neighborhood had been targeted for redevelopment, they made it clear to local officials they didn't want to be evicted.

To their credit, Winslow officials listened.

A plan to rehabilitate the 30-year-old residential development in the township's Sicklerville section is expected to be approved soon.

Unlike redevelopment projects under way or proposed for the Mount Holly Gardens, the Timber Creek area of Westville and Lawnside, among others in South Jersey, longtime residents aren't expected to make way for planned improvements. Instead, Lehigh Manor folks will be there to reap the benefits.

That's the way community redevelopment ought to routinely work. Yet, that's often not the case.

In too many towns, community redevelopment not only means new housing and commercial buildings, but also new residents.

Forced to yield
Local officials looking to revitalize aging neighborhoods eagerly welcome in developers who promise to upgrade their communities as well as their tax bases.

Of course, new construction requires a clearing of the land. If property owners refuse to make way for this "progress," many local officials use the authority of eminent domain to force landowners to sell.

Longtime residents often must resort to expensive legal challenges to fight for their homes. Sometimes, as in the case of residents in the Cramer Hill section of Camden, they win. Too often, however, residents find the system is stacked against them.

A year-old U.S. Supreme Court ruling sanctioned this broad use of eminent domain. The takings law allows government officials to seize private property for projects that are supposed to benefit the general public. Historically, eminent domain has been used to take land from reluctant sellers for public works projects.

Since a 1949 state law allowing government to seize blighted property, local officials have increasingly used this authority to turn over private property to builders of upscale developments.

Redefine blight
But the term "blighted" is so loosely defined in state law, nearly any neighborhood can be razed, according to a recent report issued by New Jersey Public Advocate Ronald Chen.

State lawmakers should consider recommendations made by Chen as a starting point in limiting the authority of local officials. Chen's proposals also offer needed protection for private land owners.

In addition to more narrowly defining what constitutes "blighted," Chen has proposed requiring that landowners be compensated enough to replace their housing. Often, government usually pays the current value of land taken through eminent domain. That value often is much lower than the proposed price of new housing for the property. That means, displaced residents cannot buy back into their upgraded communities.

With the scarcity of affordable housing in New Jersey, finding shelter in other municipalities can also be difficult. Every time an affordable neighborhood is razed, it exacerbates the state's housing crunch.

Winslow's approach to rehabilitating an aging neighborhood should become a model for other municipalities. Residents helped shape the redevelopment plan and will benefit from it.

The township as a whole will win by reversing the decline of a neighborhood and the negatives often associated with it: higher crime, lower property values and crumbling housing stock.

If Winslow officials follow through on helping residents upgrade their homes and improving municipal services in the neighborhood, the proposed redevelopment should work out for everyone.

There's a lot of value in preserving such neighborhoods. State law should encourage local officials to consider building on that value. Taking private land for upscale developments should become a rare event in New Jersey.


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