New Jersey's redevelopment law is so loose that even the governor's mansion could be declared "underutilized" and eligible for condemnation.
But an overeager Legislature could limit the definition too much and rob towns of a key tool to rescue neighborhoods from decay.
That's the challenge tossed to states by the U.S. Supreme Court last year with its controversial decision Kelo v. New London, in which the court allowed local officials in Connecticut to tear down a modest, but healthy, neighborhood to build a more economically promising development. Now it's up to each state to decide the appropriate local use of eminent domain.
Condemning private property for public use, such as bridges or roads, causes little controversy. But taking property for a housing development, office building or mall is another matter.
Since Kelo, some states, such as South Dakota, have outlawed eminent domain for private redevelopment under any circumstances. Some states may limit eminent domain to commercial or industrial property. Others, such as Ohio and New Mexico, are taking a timeout to study the problem.
In April, Pennsylvania curtailed the taking of private property for private economic development by narrowing the definition of "blight." Time will tell whether the state leaned too far in the direction of property owners, making redevelopment overly onerous.
New Jersey, with its enormous redevelopment needs, must take more care. In earlier years, it properly limited growth in the environmentally sensitive Highlands and Pine Barrens; it's running out of space to build elsewhere.
Developers can reverse decades-long decay by capitalizing on existing public and private investment, restoring housing choices, and linking transportation and jobs. But it's not easy. Instead of buying up a farmer's fields, they often have to assemble multiple parcels in cities. Sometimes, not all of the properties they need are vacant. When that happens, for the good of the larger community, towns may have to resort to eminent domain to relocate property owners.
Done well, eminent domain helps create vibrant, productive new neighborhoods. Look at the Jersey City waterfront or downtown New Brunswick. Done poorly, as it too often is in New Jersey, eminent domain raises suspicions of insider politics, spawns lawsuits, and hurts low-income families, as it is threatening to do in Camden's Cramer Hill section.
New Jersey needs to redefine eminent domain to shift power to the people, while still preserving it as a redevelopment tool of last resort. The Legislature can do that.
More than 40 years ago, New Jersey gave local governments power to condemn blighted property. Over the years, the definition of blight became so broad that now towns can declare "an area in need of redevelopment" whenever the area is "underutilized" or the plan is "consistent with smart-growth planning principles." That breadth invited all kinds of mischief.
Over the same period, the ability of property owners affected by redevelopment to participate in the process eroded. Now, by the time they figure out what is happening, they often stand to lose their homes. The process creates enemies, not needed allies to revitalize communities.
Stakeholders, including developers, municipalities, smart-growth proponents, housing-rights advocates, environmentalists and good-government champions, have worked for two years to change that process. They have solid proposals, sponsored by Sen. Ellen Karcher (D., Monmouth), and more coming from Sen. Ronald Rice (D., Essex).
Gov. Corzine has weighed in through Public Advocate Robert Chen in a May 18 report. Echoing the stakeholders, Chen urges tightening the definition of blight, increasing public participation and the ability to appeal, raising property compensation rates, and improving ethics rules.
The challenge will be moving eminent domain reform through a Legislature riddled with dual officeholders and other conflicts of interest involving developers.
New Jersey's prosperity is more reliant on redevelopment than perhaps any state in the nation, Chen concludes. The state needs to keep eminent domain - used fairly, done properly - in its toolbox.
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