Eminent domain changes proposed: Trenton NJ Times, 10/22/06

By Eva Loayza

There is no "magic bullet" for private property owners fighting the government over eminent domain, but a bill recently passed by the state Assembly and now before the Senate would at least level the playing field.

That was a key piece of encouragement related by attorney Mary Lou Delahanty and her husband R. Kevin McGrory, former city municipal court chief judge, to about a dozen residents who attended a discussion concerning eminent do main at the Trenton Meeting of Friends yesterday.

The discussion, co-sponsored by the Latino Community Land Trust and BOOST (Building Open Opportunity Structures Together), came just days after the city council voted to allow the administration to condemn portions or entire private properties for a South Ward project if a deal cannot be reached with the owners.

The ordinances adopted by the council are for properties on Centre and Lamberton streets needed for the balance of an 84-unit condo project proposed by K. Hovnanian for the Champale Redevelopment Area.

Delahanty said it is next to impossible under current legislation for a private property owner to fight condemnation action by a municipality. Delahanty said in her practice she has found it is better to focus resources on litigating the issue of fair market value rather than trying to fight a municipality on eminent domain.

Practical strategies for dealing with condemnation actions include not accepting a municipality's first offer, which may be lower than subsequent offers, she said.

Delahanty also advised property owners to get an appraiser to assist in the initial negotiations.

But McGrory pointed out that in most cases of condemnation and eminent domain, it is difficult for property owners to incur the cost of attorneys and appraisers while the condemning authority easily can afford such expert assistance.

McGrory said a bill that passed the state Assembly and is pending in the Senate would make a number of changes to the local redevelopment and housing laws.

One of the most important changes would be a shift in the burden of proof for designating an area as in need of redevelopment, he said. Current law gives the condemning party the benefit of the doubt. Those challenging a condemnation ordinance are required to prove it is arbitrary and unreasonable, which McGrory said is an exceedingly high burden of proof.

The bill also would change the type of compensation offered to a property owner from fair market value to replacement value. Delahanty said that is significant in a city such as Trenton with so many "depressed" properties. "You are giving someone the price it will take to have that structure again and that becomes a more fair process," said Delahanty. "People will be more protected."

Others changes include increased notice to people who re side in potential redevelopment areas about pertinent meetings and hearings.

Trenton NJ Times: http://www.nj.com