N.J. strives to curtail eminent domain: (Camden NJ) Courier-Post, 5/12/06

By Richard Pearsall

Eighteen states have imposed restrictions on eminent domain in the wake of last summer's U.S. Supreme Court ruling that government may seize private property to promote development by private interests.

New Jersey is among 21 other states considering changes to answer the backlash the high court's decision created.

Assemblyman John Burzichelli, D-Paulsboro, said Thursday that the Assembly Commerce and Economic Development Committee he chairs will have what he calls a "consensus" bill ready for consideration when it meets next month.

Burzichelli made his prediction at the close of a hearing at which the committee took testimony from a half-dozen legislators on the topic. The legislators offered proposals ranging from tinkering with the amount of compensation that property owners receive to amending the state constitution to prohibit the condemnation of any private property for private use.

An outright prohibition of eminent domain for private use seems unlikely to win approval in a state where hundreds of redevelopment zones have been created, despite the impassioned pleas of legislators such as Guy Gregg, R-Washington Township, Morris County.

"Personal property should be yours unless you horribly abuse it," Gregg said.

More than a dozen bills have been introduced in the Legislature concerning eminent domain.

Burzichelli hopes to craft a single bill that will advance with the support of the Democratic leadership.

"Our idea is that these ideas, plus others, will be assembled in a compromise bill," Burzichelli said at Thursday's hearing.

His committee has held two previous hearings on eminent domain, one to hear from experts, the other to take testimony from the general public.

Speaking for a coalition that includes both the New Jersey League of Municipalities and NJ Future, a nonprofit group that promotes so-called "smart growth," Assemblyman Robert Gordon, D-Fair Lawn, outlined a number of principles around which, he said, a consensus has formed.

Among those principles are a more transparent process, including more public involvement in the selection of developers; more specific criteria to define blight; and greater compensation for those whose property is taken.

"These are principles we've heard from everyone," Burzichelli said.

Assemblywoman Charlotte Vandervalk, R-Montvale, urged the committee to endorse a moratorium on the use of eminent domain until a study commission can determine the right course.

"Our intention is to take a run at it," Burzichelli said. "If we stall, we'll look for an alternative."

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