Eminent domain battle now on national stage: Edison (NJ) Sentinel, 8/9/06


Long Branch Mayor Adam Schneider and the members of his "Schneider Team" should be so proud - they've gone from being villains on a local and regional level to villains of national renown.

If you read a daily newspaper, chances are that last Sunday you noticed that a Long Branch family, the Hoaglands, were featured on the cover of Parade magazine, along with the headline "Will the Government Take Your Home?" Also featured on the cover were a poster urging a halt to eminent domain abuse and a photo kicker stating, "A family fights back."

The three-page story that accompanied the cover photo chronicled the battle that the Hoaglands, and others around the country where local governments are taking property by eminent domain for redevelopment, have undertaken to save their properties.

It even included a take-out box outlining what you can do if the government says it wants to take your property for redevelopment, and discussed the national backlash that resulted from last year's decision by the United States Supreme Court in the Kelo v. City of New London (Connecticut) case. In that case, the court ruled that local governments do have the power to seize homes and turn the property over to private developers, on the theory that the new developments will bring in more tax dollars.

The Hoaglands are members of MTOTSA (Marine and Ocean Terraces and Seaview Avenue), the group of homeowners who stand to lose their properties to eminent domain, so a developer can build 185 expensive condominiums. Their story has gone from creating outrage around New Jersey and the region, to creating outrage on the national stage in the pages of publications like The New York Times and now Parade magazine, the largest circulation publication (35 million weekly) in the entire United States.

Long Branch has truly become the national poster child for eminent domain abuse, its sad story shared with what Parade magazine claims were likely 78 million readers last Sunday alone.

Over the last two years, Greater Media Newspapers 9publisher of the Edison Sentinel] - in particular the Atlanticville and reporter Christine Varno - have written dozens, if not hundreds, of stories about the eminent domain battles in Long Branch. We were on the story long before any other publication in our area, and we have stayed on it week after week because we believed, and still believe, that this conflict playing out in our backyards has significant implications for every homeowner - not only in New Jersey, but in every other state in our nation - who goes to sleep at night under the mistaken impression that his home is safe from the whim of a government that might decide that a new Starbucks or Pump 'n Munch franchise is a better use for the property.

The national spotlight now being trained on Long Branch proves that we were right, and I expect other national publications will pick up the story in the very near future.

Parade magazine used one of our photographs by staff photographer Miguel Juarez, but did not mention the body of work we have published on the eminent domain controversy in Long Branch. So last week, before the Parade article was published, I asked Sean Flynn, the author of the article, what had drawn his attention to that community.

Initially, he said, his interest was piqued because the eminent domain dispute in Long Branch was brought to his attention by someone at the Institute for Justice, a national nonprofit organization that has taken the issue on as a crusade. He visited the city in early June.

"It's a beautiful, beautiful place but the tension between the city's need to redevelop and the people's rights to live in their homes was dramatic," he said. "In my mind, what is going on in Long Branch really crystallized the issue. I certainly wouldn't say those properties are blighted ... the shabbiest part was the 'Stop Eminent Domain Abuse' signs."

Will the national attention help the MTOTSA families save their homes? Flynn doesn't know.

"I don't know if it will do them any good," he said. "You look back at the Kelo case, and it didn't do those people any good."

But Kelo did start a national backlash, and Flynn agrees the Long Branch dispute is serious fuel for the fire.

On July 30, Adam Liptak, writing for The New York Times, discussed that very subject, the national "tidal wave of outrage" generated by the Kelo case.

"Sometimes," he wrote, "Supreme Court cases have a way of highlighting issues that had been absent from the national agenda, and the cases can provoke reactions that have a far greater impact than the ruling itself."

He quotes Douglas Laycock, a law professor at the University of Texas, who said, "I always tell my students that one of the best things you can do is lose a case in the Supreme Court."

And later, he quotes Dana Berlinger, from the Institute for Justice, who said, "The decision brought to light this incredible rift between what lawyers and cities thought was the law and what the American people thought was the law. This is certainly the situation of losing the battle and winning the war."

In other words, the Kelo decision didn't help the people who lost their property in Connecticut, but it may wind up saving the properties of thousands.

By extension, the national outrage generated by the coverage of the Long Branch battle may be too late to save the MTOTSA members' homes, but it may steer the country's course when it comes to future cases of eminent domain abuse.

That, in reality, will be the "Schneider Team's" legacy. To go down in American history as the leaders of the community that caused a nation to say, "Enough is enough."

Edison (NJ) Sentinel: http://ems.gmnews.com