Embattled homeowners in a waterfront neighborhood fighting the city's efforts to take their homes for private redevelopment gained a powerful ally Wednesday — their second in two days — in their fight to protect their properties.
State Public Advocate Ronald K. Chen said he would participate in an appeal to block upscale condominiums from replacing homes in the Marine Terrace-Ocean Terrace-Seaview Avenue area, commonly known as MTOTSA, which residents say is a well-established, close-knit neighborhood.
Chen said he would file a "friend of the court" brief in support of the residents' position, saying eminent domain should only be used in "narrow and rare" circumstances.
On Tuesday, MTOTSA residents got help from the Institute for Justice, the Arlington, Va., nonprofit law firm that has handled some of the leading eminent-domain cases in the nation. It announced it would join the residents' fight.
"As of today, this neighborhood is ground zero in the fight against eminent-domain abuse," said William H. "Chip" Mellor, institute president, who joined Chen and residents at a news conference in the oceanview neighborhood to formally announce their appeal of Superior Court Judge Lawrence L. Lawson's June 22 decision that permits the city to use eminent domain to acquire MTOTSA properties.
"It's been a long haul," said Lori Ann Vendetti, a core member of MTOTSA. "We've come this far, and we're not stopping. . . . This is happening throughout the country. We're not going to stop until eminent-domain (abuse) stops here and throughout the country."
Chen criticizes judge
"The facts in this case raise serious concerns regarding whether these homeowners received fair treatment throughout this process, and I believe it is appropriate for the Appellate Division to review this case," Chen said in a prepared release and in remarks he echoed at the news conference, held amid homes where signs such as "fight bogus blight, "ours today, yours tomorrow" and "this land is my land," abound.
In an interview, Chen said Lawson, sitting in Freehold, should have allowed the residents to present evidence to demonstrate whether the neighborhood was blighted, as the city alleges, or not, as the residents contend.
Institute for Justice senior attorney Scott Bullock called it "one of the most outrageous aspects of this case" that Lawson did not permit the homeowners their day in court.
"That rarely happens in eminent-domain cases," he said of a lack of an evidentiary hearing. "That's what we'll be asking the appellate court to do."
Chen also is troubled over whether residents originally were given correct information from the city about whether their neighborhood was threatened. They contend they were told the neighborhood was slated for "infill" housing in the redevelopment plan, meaning the developer would build on available lots.
Mayor: Look at record
Mayor Adam Schneider contends that regardless of the residents' understanding of "infill," he always meant it to mean the neighborhood would be taken, and smaller redevelopment projects would be built there.
Schneider challenged the thoroughness of Chen's research, noting the advocate never examined the record the city has developed over more than a decade, laying out its plan.
"He hasn't talked to me about that issue, he hasn't talked to anyone in the city about that issue," Schneider said of Chen's concerns over the meaning of infill. "I don't understand why he never came and reviewed the record we created over the last 12 to 15 years before he made his decision."
Chen said he would file the brief within two weeks of the filing of the notice of appeal, which both lawyers Peter H. Wegener and William J. Ward, attorneys who are separately representing clients in the zone, said they have done.
On May 18, Chen issued a report that recommended reforms to prevent eminent-domain abuse: He called for tightening the definition of blight, called for changing the way government engages in redevelopment to make it more fair and open to property owners and tenants, and sought to require homeowners be compensated with the replacement value of their homes so they can stay in their communities, if they desire.
"These processes have to be cleaned up so there is complete transparency," Chen said.
Wegener and Institute for Justice attorneys Bullock and Jeff Rowes will act as co-counsels for the majority of the affected residents. The residents have been working with the institute and its sister organization, the Castle Coalition, for years but this is the first formal partnership between the two.
Priority for institute
Bullock said Tuesday that Long Branch would be a priority for the institute, which will not charge the residents for its work.
"It would be so easy simply to preserve this neighborhood," Bullock said. "All we're talking about is a two-and-a-half block neighborhood. . . . Maybe the city will come to its senses."
Although the city continues to negotiate with some MTOTSA residents who voluntarily want to settle, Schneider said he believes the city ultimately will prevail in the appeal.
"I'm not litigating this in the newspaper," Schneider said of MTOTSA's various charges.
Vendetti said that many attorneys would not take their case, or only wanted to take the case to handle the "just compensation" question, that is how much money the residents would accept to move. But Wegener believed the case should be waged on a more fundamental level, one that would assure the residents stay in their homes.
Anna DeFaria of Marine Terrace cried a little when she talked about her ties to her house and the community.
"I'm going to be 81 years old in October. I've lived here for 46 years, with my husband, whose been gone 10 years now, with my six children and six great-grandchildren," she said. "We thought we were going to stay here for the rest of our lives. Now they think they can take what's ours for that over there," she said pointing to the condominiums of Beachfront North Phase I. MTOTSA is designated phase 2 of that development.
"After 74 years here, seven generations have enjoyed 99 Marine Terrace," said Albert Viviano. "My position at 93 years old is I'd like to stay in my own home."
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