Politicians share views on eminent domain: Asbury Park NJ Press, 9/28/06

By Carol Gorga Williams

[Long Branch NJ] Councilwoman Jackeline Biddle, targeted earlier this month for her failure to detail her position on the use of eminent domain in the city's ongoing redevelopment process, said the controversial practice should be used only as a last resort.

She added, however, that in sections of the redevelopment where contracts already were signed with developers, it would be too damaging to the city to breach those contracts and face "multimillion dollar" lawsuits by developers.

At a press conference Tuesday, Biddle clarified her position, saying she had formulated it after reading the city's redevelopment plan and the June 22 decision by Superior Court Judge Lawrence M. Lawson that ruled the city could use eminent domain to acquire properties in the Marine Terrace, Ocean Terrace, Seaview Avenue area. She also cited meetings with Mayor Adam Schneider, city council members, MTOTSA community members and others.

To those directly affected by eminent domain, "I will utilize my position as a city leader to be an advocate for you, and I will fight for you to find every possible solution," Biddle said in a statement, sentiments she echoed during her press conference.

"My hope and my belief is that there are still ways we can resolve these issues without having to resort to the use of eminent domain," she said. "Toward that end, I would like to sit down with my colleagues on council, the developer and the residents of MTOTSA and their representatives in order to open the lines of communication with the goal of facilitating a compromise that is in the best interest of all parties involved."

As she prepared for her news conference, Brian A. Unger, one of her opponents in the November special election to fill the remaining term of former Councilman John Zambrano, was conducting his own. Unger offered a resolution he wants the council to endorse that asks cities to voluntarily curb their use of eminent domain, and called upon the Legislature, Gov. Corzine and Congress to put restrictions in place to protect citizens from eminent domain abuse.

Unger said if the council approved the resolution, it could act as a "cooling off period" between city officials and those who oppose what they call eminent domain abuse.

MTOTSA is appealing Lawson's decision, and Unger acknowledged he once offered to allow the Seaview Avenue portion of MTOTSA be redeveloped, in an effort to secure a compromise with city officials.

"I've talked with Brian about this issue," Schneider said. "It is quite clear there is no legal authority for the governor to declare a moratorium. I'm a little puzzled because" Unger acted as a MTOTSA advocate for a time but gave it up "because he didn't think their position that the entire area needs to be saved was reasonable. I find it somewhat disingenuous — "Stop what you're doing' on one hand and claiming he wants the redevelopment to continue" on the other.

Unger challenged an opinion by the nonpartisan state Office of Legislative Services (OLS) that determined Corzine did not have the power to enact a statewide moratorium. Unger said he based his position on research by William Potter, a Princeton lawyer who heads Stop EDA, a statewide group formerly known as the New Jersey Coalition Against Eminent Domain Abuse.

Potter said Wednesday he did not agree with the state office.

"OLS has traditionally been very deferential to legislative prerogatives in the separation of powers area," said Potter, noting the OLS also issued opinions that governors Tom Kean and Brendan Byrne did not have that power, which they yielded anyway.

During a recent interview with the Asbury Park Press editorial board, Corzine said he was not in favor of a statewide moratorium.

Corzine said it would have to be decided "on a case-by-case basis" and that he does not "want to do a broad moratorium that doesn't reflect the differences in blight."

"I think we have the tools to make sure eminent domain is not abused," he said.

Robert H. Levin, section chief of the OLS's Local Government section, said the governor could order a moratorium only in very limited circumstances.

"The answer is eminent domain is an inherent power," he had said in May. "It exists without any special authority. It is just a power of government, like taxation."

The governor, Levin said, could order a moratorium be enacted upon the state departments he controls, or he could cut off state funds to communities using eminent domain, although that act would likely be challenged in court, and the governor would probably lose, Levin said. For "municipalities, he would need a legal basis, if he could show there was some dire emergency — after a hurricane, flood, something that is catastrophic" then he could have the power, Levin said. "I don't think such an emergency exists.

Meanwhile, three other council candidates — Michael P. Sirianni, Vincent J. Maccioli and Ralph A. DeFillipo Sr. — are in agreement about eminent domain and MTOTSA and do not support use of the power there.

Asbury Park NJ Press: www.app.com