Assembly OKs bill aimed at eminent domain abuse: Asbury Park (NJ) Press, 6/23/06

By Jregory J Volpe

The [New Jersey] state Assembly approved an eminent domain reform measure Thursday aimed at restricting when towns can take land for private redevelopment, despite critics who say residents will not be much more protected from government land grabs.

The Assembly approved the legislation in a 51-18 vote, with 11 abstentions, capping off one chapter in New Jersey lawmakers' response to the controversial Kelo decision, issued by the U.S. Supreme Court a year ago today, that upheld government's right to take land for private redevelopment.

"Across New Jersey, the fear of New Jerseyans is that government is waiting around the corner and on a wistful moment can take their homes," said bill sponsor Assemblyman John Burzichelli, D-Gloucester. "It's a situation we have to address."

Burzichelli said his measure would limit what property can be taken, place more burdens on towns seeking redevelopment and give greater compensation to those who lose property.

Much of the opposition, mostly from Republicans, revolved around a push for a complete ban on eminent domain's use or a stronger ethics provision. Separate measures dealing with those issues were shot down.

"We should have started from the premise of not allowing eminent domain for the concept of taking your house and giving it to someone else at all," Assemblyman Guy Gregg, R-Morris, said. "That's the bill we should be dealing with today. That's where the rest of the country is going."

Assemblywoman Amy Handlin, R-Monmouth, said the bill should have required stronger pay-to-play and nepotism restrictions than required for other businesses.

"Treating a redeveloper like an ordinary public vendor is like treating a lion the same way as a lamb," Handlin said.

Burzichelli said redevelopers are subject to state and local ethics laws and that his measure closed loopholes that could have exempted redevelopment projects from certain pay-to-play rules. He said further restrictions on redevelopers should be imposed through changes to the state's ethics laws.

Public Advocate Ronald Chen also called for stronger pay-to-play reform, as well as affordable housing mandates. He still supported Burzichelli's proposal.

"The revised language in this legislation gives us a definition that is more clear and objective and would help restrict the use of eminent domain for private redevelopment to truly blighted areas," Chen wrote Wednesday to Burzichelli.

The Institute for Justice, a national group that represents people who feel they're victims of eminent domain, panned New Jersey's effort because it still allows some vague terms for when towns can take land, such as "obsolescent."

"Obsolescent means whatever a planner thinks it means," said Dana Berliner, a senior attorney with the institute. "In Ohio, planners said obsolescent meant "doesn't have two full bathrooms and a two-car attached garage."'

William Dressel Jr., executive director of the New Jersey State League of Municipalities, however, called the changes massive and considerable.

"There's been a sea (of) change in the process," Dressel said.

The measure needs Senate approval before it goes before Gov. Corzine.

Sen. Ronald Rice, D-Essex, who chairs the Senate Community and Urban Affairs Committee and sponsors a competing eminent domain measure, said he plans to hold hearings throughout the summer before posting a vote.

"I plan to move gradually," Rice said.

Sen. Stephen Sweeney, D-Gloucester, has proposed a Senate measure identical to Burzichelli's.

Corzine spokesman Brendan Gilfillan said the administration sees "the bill as a positive step toward curbing eminent domain abuse."

Asbury Park Press: www.app.com