Camden needs eminent domain: South Jersey Courier Post, 11/19/06


By Arijit De

In a recent front-page article in the Courier-Post, an attorney with South Jersey Legal Services argued that all of the plans to redevelop Camden should be stopped while the governor names a new chief operating officer.

As the article noted, Legal Services opposes any redevelopment project which calls for the city to use the power of eminent domain. The position taken by Legal Services is shortsighted and threatens to prevent the revitalization of "America's poorest city."

The problems in Camden are well known: poverty, crime, a failing educational system, low tax base, etc. The problems are so severe that Camden is the only city in New Jersey under state supervision. COO Randy Primas, who recently announced his resignation, recognized that the city could not be revitalized without comprehensive redevelopment plans.

Efforts halted
However, his efforts to revitalize the city have been stalled by lawsuits filed by Legal Services. Legal Services has taken the extreme position that there should be no redevelopment in Camden if it involves the relocation of even one family. When Legal Services filed suit to block the Cramer Hill redevelopment plan, a mediation session was quickly arranged with a retired appellate judge. The mediation failed because the Legal Services attorney told the judge she would not negotiate if the redevelopment plan included the use of eminent domain to acquire even one occupied residential property. The judge commented on the unreasonableness of her position and quickly adjourned the mediation.

Legal Services has taken similar and equally extreme positions regarding redevelopment plans for Waterfront South. Legal Services objected to the use of eminent domain in this environmentally challenged neighborhood, even though more than 40 residents of the homes targeted for acquisition asked [to be], and in fact have been, relocated.

Legal Services has taken the same position in Bergen Square, arguing that this neighborhood, where more than 50 percent of the properties are vacant and which has lost more than 13 percent of its population in the last 10 years, is not in need of redevelopment.

Change needed
No reasonable person would dispute that Camden needs drastic change. It needs to rebuild its tax base and bring back its middle class. The redevelopment plans promoted by Primas would do just that. And, the plans provide that residents will be relocated in similar homes in their neighborhood. There is certainly room in Camden for more people - the population of the city has dropped by more than 45,000 over the last 50 years.

Of course, Camden and other distressed cities cannot be revitalized with only public funds. The state of New Jersey already provides Camden with most of its operating budget, but clearly will not provide sufficient funds to rebuild the city. Furthermore, there is little federal aid available for urban renewal.

Private investment is the only way Camden can be revitalized. Private redevelopers will not get involved in Camden or any other distressed/urban area unless there is an opportunity for a profit. Redevelopment on the scale that is needed in Camden cannot be accomplished unless land is assembled for a redeveloper. Land cannot be assembled for redevelopment unless a municipality has the power of eminent domain.

Court decision
Legal Services and other opponents of eminent domain have been mobilized since the Supreme Court decision in Kelo v. City of New London, Conn. Retired Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, in her dissent, criticized the majority's decision because it would allow a city to acquire and demolish a Motel 6 in order to build a Ritz-Carlton. Camden of course has no Motel 6 - or any other hotel or motel for that matter.

While eminent domain may or may not have been abused in New London or other suburban towns, the situation in Camden is totally different. While the number of homes which need to be acquired by eminent domain may be debatable, the necessity of the city's power to use it is not. Those who blindly oppose any redevelopment in Camden if it includes the possible use of eminent domain for even one residence are ensuring that Camden will continue to deteriorate. The power of eminent domain must be available if the city is to move forward and lose the label of "America's poorest city."

South Jersey Courier Post: http://www.courierpostonline.com

Arijit De is executive director of the Camden Redevelopment Agency: