Court - It's OK to stop developers: Penn Live, Harrisburg PA, 12/8/06

Superior court rules eminent domain may be used to preserve land

An eminent domain ruling from [the New jersey] state Superior Court could strengthen a similar case brought by Readington Township officials that is winding its way through the court system.

The ruling Thursday affirms Mount Laurel Township's right to seize land from a developer for open space preservation. Readington Township officials are arguing they have the right to condemn land around Solberg Airport for the same reason.

"Certainly the overriding principle of this opinion is helpful," said James Rhatican, the township's attorney in the case.

While it affirms the right to exercise eminent domain for land preservation purposes, it doesn't ensure a victory for Readington Township officials.

Laurence Orloff, the attorney representing the airport owners, claims officials' true motive has nothing to do with land preservation. He argues officials want to prevent the airport from expanding and serving larger aircraft. He contends officials masked a referendum allowing them to borrow money to fund the purchase as a preservation and environmental issue.

Officials are seeking 624 acres of land and the development rights to the 101-acre airport.

Thursday's court ruling decision "scuttles an argument of pretext," and shows stopping residential development correlates to land preservation, Rhatican said.

The Mount Laurel case centers on a 23-acre piece of land that is quickly losing its once-plentiful open space.

The township tried to buy the land in 2002 before MiPro Homes LLC received a subdivision approval for its plans to build 16 homes there. After being rebuffed, the town's government used its power of eminent domain to acquire the land to preserve open space and to avert problems that can come with more homes, such as traffic congestion and school crowding.

MiPro sued and a trial court judge agreed with the homebuilder that seeking to prevent sprawl was not a sufficient reason for the government to use its takings power.

Last year an appeals court overturned that decision, and on Thursday the state Supreme Court agreed with the appeals court in a 6-1 decision.

Environmentalists applauded Thursday's decision, which strikes a blow to developers, and some argue, private property rights.

Richard S. Van Osten, executive vice president of the Builders League of South Jersey, said the ruling is a blow to property owners.

"If you own property in New Jersey, you are not immune from having the ownership of your land taken by force to preserve open space, whether there is a true plan for it or not and whether you are willing to sell it or not," he said.

The Sierra Club, on the other hand, applauded the ruling.

"Towns can condemn land for private development," said Jeff Tittel, director of the environmental group's New Jersey chapter. "Now they can condemn land to stop sprawl."

Penn Live, Harrisburg PA: http://www.pennlive.com