Eminent domain hot in Millville: Bridgeton NJ News, 9/19/06

By Jaime Marine

Local government watchdog group Millville First expressed concerns about the city's plans for the first Revenue Allocation District [RAD] in the state and possible uses of eminent domain related to this plan during a press conference Monday.

The briefing was held a day before the city was expected to hold a public hearing and final vote on the issue. This meeting will take place tonight at 7 p.m. in city hall.

"The document is flawed and won't hold up to careful analysis," member Paul Porreca said, adding he would like to see it reworked.

The purpose of the RAD is to use part of the revenues earned in the target area toward taxes and the other portion toward projects for that district.

The Center City RAD area includes the downtown and commercial areas, including routes 55 and 47, as well as the area extending to the former Ball-Foster Glass Plant, Third Ward and riverfront.

In a press release, Millville First states, "The city plans to use the millions of dollars diverted (from) the general fund to pay for what they refer to as improvements."

It goes on to say documents obtained by the group indicate that a portion of the plan includes the acquisition and demolition of over $3 million worth of privately owned property.

"This will be obtained through the use of eminent domain," the release states. "Millville First, while supportive of economic development, does not believe in the taking of private property for the use of private development."

Member Emil Van Hook and Porreca both said this is a major concern and said they plan to initiate a petition drive to urge city commission to ban the use of eminent domain for anything but "genuine public projects."

Van Hook and Porreca intend to present a draft of their petition to Millville First during their October meeting for feedback and then distribution.

Porreca added the group hopes to get at least 2,000 signatures on the petition, which would then be given to the city clerk in hopes the commissioners would pass the ordinance banning eminent domain for the benefit of a private developer or private development.

If the ordinance were not adopted, Van Hook and Porreca said it could then go to the public in the form of a ballot question.

"It gives the city commission the opportunity to respond positively to the people," Porreca said.

The group needs at least 15 percent of voters who voted in the last general election, meaning the need at least 1,730 signatures.

Planning Director Kim Warker said the plan states there are properties the city wants to acquire, but said that does not mean eminent domain has to be used.

"Acquiring property doesn't mean eminent domain," she said. "(Eminent domain) is primarily criticized when it is used to take land held in poor areas and pushes poor people out to build upscale development. We are doing the complete opposite."

Warker said the focus of the plan is not eminent domain, which is a tool available to the city, and it should not be made to look that way.

Commissioner Joe Derella said eminent domain is in the state constitution and there are special guidelines that have to be met in order to utilize it.

"Currently in the City of Millville, eminent domain was used on one property by the new retail area and that was a billboard," he said, adding in some instances it is needed.

"The city has made a commitment in the past and will continue with that commitment to avoid eminent domain whenever possible."

Additionally, Millville First also cited issues with the 15-year time frame, which they said "places this and future commissions in a straitjacket."

"Taxes generated by Target and the new shopping center cannot be used for anything else like tax relief," the group said through a statement. "The RAD raises no additional money. Any unforeseen expenses in other parts of the city will have to be paid for without the use of those funds."

Derella said the city sees the RAD as an opportunity to help parts of the community in need.

"No other commission has found a way to help support, with long-term amounts of money, those neighborhoods," he said.

Millville First inquired about a plan for an airport RAD, but Warker said those plans have been abandoned.

"It has been through a lot of adjustments and modifications," she said of the RAD plan, adding the state has been made aware of all the changes. "There was an airport RAD and a Center City RAD, but it was changed to make it a lot less complicated."

Warker added the focus has always been on redevelopment in Center City and since they had an anchor project - Union Lake Crossing - and believed in development along the river, they decided to focus on that area.

Derella said Goodman Properties' shopping center will generate $22.9 million in the next 15 years in new tax revenue.

He added about $11.3 million of that will be dedicated to the central neighborhood through the RAD and about $11.5 million will go to the city, county and schools.

"We are making a long-term commitment to the neighborhoods to show our (dedication) to them," Derella said.

Bridgeton NJ News: http://www.nj.com/news/bridgeton