Piscataway petition urges limits on eminent domain: Asbury Park (NJ) Press, 7/4/06

AT ISSUE: Township's effort to acquire and preserve a farm as open space

PROPONENTS: Don't seize private property for other than a public purpose

By Gene Racz

A citizens group called The Piscataway Property Rights Organization is working to collect 2,500 signatures by mid-August on a petition with the ultimate goal of limiting the township's power to seize private property through the use of eminent domain.

The PPRO wants to build support for a referendum that would ask Piscataway voters to forbid the township's governing body from condemning private property for redevelopment or any nonpublic purpose.

The PPRO will be gathering signatures door-to-door, at the local post office and even at today's Fourth of July parade.

"I think people want to preserve eminent domain for building things like a highway or a school," said Thom Ammirato, who works as a media consultant for PPRO as well as other groups that want to put restrictions on the use of eminent domain usage statewide.

"But," Ammirato added, "I don't think the public supports eminent domain for economic redevelopment purposes that allows a developer to come in and take private property and make a huge profit for its own purposes."

Citing an eminent domain example in town, Ammirato called the ongoing legal battle between Piscataway and its effort to seize the Halper family farm to preserve it as open space "the center in the battle of eminent domain in Piscataway."

The wrangling has dragged on in the courts since the fall of 1999.

As it stands now, the Halper family is facing eviction from the farm on July 12. Ammirato said a protest is in the process of being planned on or near the farm.

The state Supreme Court has ruled that the Halper farm did qualify as public purpose and open space under eminent domain. The remaining question now hinges on an upcoming evaluation date that will dictate the ultimate dollar figure that will be paid by the township.

It isn't expected to be heard for another six to eight months.

A jury has set the value of the farm at $17.9 million, which has been appealed by Piscataway.

Mayor Brian Wahler said he was suspicious that partisan politics were at play behind the signature drive, noting that the PPRO has members with strong ties to the Republican Party.

"This is America. Anybody is allowed to propose to oppose anything," the mayor said, adding that in his 14 years in office, "we have never used eminent domain other than for public purpose."

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