Talks likely on eminent domain: Asbury Park NJ Press, 9/30/06

Attorneys to set meeting on Long Branch homes

By Carol Gorga Williams

[Long Branch NJ] City Attorney James G. Aaron and Peter H. Wegener, the lawyer who represents several property owners in the MTOTSA [Marine Terrace, Ocean Terrace and Seaview Avenue] area, are to discuss a timetable to meet to talk about the possibility of a settlement of the eminent-domain case.

The two had run into each other this week, and "Mr. Wegener said to me, "Is there a chance of our getting together?' " Aaron said. He agreed, and they are expected to discuss a meeting time in the coming days.

This comes days after Councilwoman Jackeline Biddle offered to act as a mediator between the two sides, an offer one of her opponents, Brian A. Unger, called "purely political." The two are among five people seeking to fill a City Council term in November.

Biddle said Tuesday that eminent domain "has torn our community apart."

Aaron said he does not know what will be on the agenda of the meeting. Wegener's clients live in the [MTOTSA] beachfront neighborhood ... that is included in Long Branch's redevelopment plans.

"I don't know if they are talking value, if they are talking property swap or if they are talking revising the (redevelopment) plan," Aaron said. "Whatever it is, it is better to sit around and talk about it than not."

Although the meeting appears unrelated to Biddle's offer, Aaron said a "fresh face" could help. Biddle said she is uncomfortable with the use of eminent domain and would authorize its use only as a last resort.

Wegener said Thursday that he was reacting to a series of letters the city sent in August — unsigned — to individual property owners asking them if they wanted to meet to discuss a settlement.

Wegener said the letters were "totally inappropriate" because the city knew the property owners were represented by an attorney and all correspondence should have gone through him.

"The group of residents that make up the MTOTSA group has been effective because they are working together and have shown a great deal of unity," Wegener said. "Efforts to undermine and isolate individuals will not be productive."

Still, he said, "the line of communication between my office and Mr. Aaron's is open."

Several property owners in MTOTSA recently appealed state Superior Court Judge Lawrence M. Lawson's June 22 decision ruling that the city could use the power of eminent domain to take the ocean-view homes for redevelopment of the second phase of Beachfront North.

The Arlington, Va.-based Institute for Justice, a nonprofit law firm that is leading the nationwide fight against what it terms eminent-domain abuse, also has signed on to represent some property owners.

Gregory S. Russo, vice president of Applied Development, which along with Matzel & Mumford, a subsidiary of K. Hovnanian, constitutes developer Beachfront North II LLC, said he remains available to meet.

"From our standpoint, we are always willing to meet with any property owner and would welcome doing so," Russo said.

Mayor Adam Schneider, who appears to be a lightning rod for MTOTSA residents' anger, would likely not be part of the meeting, but Howard H. Woolley Jr., the city business administrator, would.

"I have no authority to do anything," Aaron said. "Everything would have to be subject to approval of the mayor and council and subsequent developers. . . . Would I encourage such a meeting? Of course. You always want to settle these things or at least attempt to."

At issue in negotiations is who has the "good faith" to see this through. In his decision, Lawson said the MTOTSA residents had failed to negotiate. The residents maintain it is the city that shut down talks.

That complaint rose again recently when Francis T. DeLuca, who is represented by attorney William J. Ward, tried to get the city to move on acquiring her home. DeLuca did not join the appeal that many MTOTSA residents are pursuing.

But Ward said Louis and Lillian Anzalone, whom he represents, are continuing the appeal.

"If they can negotiate, and they can reach settlements, that's great," Ward said of the other property owners. "Anzalone is continuing the appeal and has not asked me to negotiate with them. That doesn't mean we wouldn't do it. He just wants to stay in his house. We're going ahead as far as the appeal is concerned."

Unger on Tuesday pushed for a moratorium against the use of eminent domain, saying it could act as a "cooling off period" between affected residents and the city. But Wegener said he did not know about that.

The Lakewood attorney said the time was ripe for talking between the two sides as they await an appellate briefing schedule in the case.

"It is not as though we don't have the time or opportunity," Wegener said. "The concern is that there have been commitments made to the redeveloper . . . The properties designated for condemnation are those properties designated by the developer.

"There is an open line of communication between myself and Mr. Aaron," he said again. "Whatever is necessary for any discussions is there. The question is whether there is any common meeting ground."

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