Foes look to states to curb taking of property: Asbury Park NJ Press, 10/22/06

By Bill Bowman

When it comes to governments' power to seize private property for other uses, Lori Ann Vendetti says she believes two things: First, some governments abuse that power. And second, a solution to that problem must be found quickly.

But Vendetti, like other Shore area residents involved in the issue, isn't necessarily looking to Washington for that solution. At least not yet.

Vendetti, who owns a home on Ocean Terrace in Long Branch — across the street from her parents — counts herself among those in the movement to end eminent domain abuses who believe the most efficient way to achieve their goal is at the state level.

That, she said, could be either through legislation or an amendment to the state Constitution.

"My ultimate thing would be to have a constitutional amendment on eminent domain," she said. "That's what my goal is going to be this year, but that's a pretty tall order."

A federal-level bill, Vendetti added, may be too broadly written and take too much time to implement to be of any help to her and her neighbors facing the prospect of Long Branch taking their properties for the beachfront north redevelopment.

Of the many issues that have been incorporated into campaign platforms by candidates running in the upcoming congressional elections, eminent domain abuse is perhaps the one that has attached to it the most emotion.

A Monmouth University/Gannett New Jersey Poll released last year showed overwhelming majorities of state residents opposed to the practice of taking properties and selling them to commercial developers.

The ruling last year by the U.S. Supreme Court in Kelo v. New London, in which the court affirmed a government's ability to seize private property for private development, energized those in the anti-eminent domain movement. Politicians of every stripe and at every level voiced their displeasure with the ruling, and 30 state legislatures passed laws limiting the use of eminent domain. Another 11 states have similar measures on ballots this November.

Federal legislation has been slower to come about. The House of Representatives in November 2005 overwhelmingly passed the Private Property Rights Protection Act of 2005. Republican Reps. Christopher H. Smith and H. James Saxton and Democratic Reps. Frank J. Pallone Jr. and Rush D. Holt all voted for the bill.

But the bill, which would deny federal funding for any town found to be abusing its eminent domain powers, hit a wall in the U.S. Senate, where it now languishes in the Judiciary Committee.

A similar bill introduced by Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., was designed to bypass the judiciary committee, but Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., has refused to allow a vote, according to the Washington-based Castle Coalition.

It's that kind of politicking that leads Shore residents such as Denise Hoagland of Long Branch to focus their efforts on Trenton. Hoagland, who owns a home on Ocean Terrace, and several of her neighbors in the Marine Terrace, Ocean Terrace and Seaview Terrace neighborhood, are fighting the city's efforts to seize their homes for the beachfront redevelopment project.

"Do I think a federal bill would help? Sure, if it was actually acted upon and actually put to use," she said.

"I just don't think that (federal legislation) would help for New Jersey and any eminent domain cases that are happening right now."

Long Branch is not the only Shore town where the specter of eminent domain is riling residents. Asbury Park's City Council may vote to use it to further the long-awaited waterfront redevelopment projects, and projects in Neptune's Midtown section and Neptune City's industrial area are also potential candidates for official condemnation actions.

Neptune resident Dorothy Argyros has been a vocal opponent of any type of eminent domain since she lost her home several years ago for a state highway widening. She said federal legislation would be a good thing.

"Everything that can be done should be done," she said, but she wants Gov. Corzine to first issue a moratorium on the use of eminent domain until efforts to control its use can be finalized.

She said she is "very disappointed that Corzine, who promised that once he got in office, by executive order would establish a moratorium until such time as the situation could be studied, has now forgotten about that and he's not keeping his promise."

Joe Galiani is a Neptune City resident who left his job at Park Steel & Iron because he felt the borough was going to take the Evergreen Avenue plant in its effort to redevelop the general Steiner Avenue area.

Galiani, an outspoken critic of the borough's plan, said he doesn't believe any politician wants to curb the use of eminent domain.

"I would think both parties would be out to screw the American people over," he said.

Corlies Chong of Neptune City has supported the borough's Steiner Avenue area redevelopment effort. He acknowledged that there are abuses, but, he said, they should be dealt with at the state level.

"I support anything that keeps the property owner as whole as possible," he said. "But I think that's something that frankly has to come on a state level rather than the federal level. I think from the federal level, it's just such a broad stroke. States are different, towns are different, situations are different."

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