New Westville councilman takes stance against eminent domain: Gloucester County NJ Times, 1/25/07

By Jonathan Vit

George Baker, a [Westville] council veteran, knows that people want him on council as a voice against eminent domain, but he also knows that his voice is joining a minority.

"Having served on the council before I know that one person cannot make a whole lot of difference," he admitted, "but the taxpayers do need more representation."

Baker was appointed to council to fill the seat left by Mayor Michael Galbraith.

The representation that some people expect is on the borough's topic to end all topics, eminent domain. Baker, who served on the council in the late 1980's, owns two homes in the borough's redevelopment zone, one for himself and one for his son, that have been threatened by eminent domain.

"I do not have problems with redevelopment, but I (do) have problems with eminent domain," he explained of the Doylestown, Pa-based developer Fieldstone's Big Timber Creek Redevelopment Plan.

"If you could just take eminent domain out of the picture," the redevelopment plan would work, he explained. "There are 14 states that do not allow eminent domain to be used by private business and New Jersey should be 15."

If the developer worked with homeowners to find fair offers for their homes, then the plan would lose its controversy, he explained.

"People don't understand if your grandfather built the house and you lived there and want to pass it on to your kids, then someone shows up and says they want to buy the house," Baker said. "Certainly in a town like Westville it is not impractical to pay fair prices, plus moving expenses, for them to leave their house."

When the developer first entered the borough with plans to turn 27 water-side properties into 253 condominiums they offered homeowners prices that they felt were too low.

Now, four out of six council members admit that they are in favor of using eminent domain to procure the homes, if necessary.

"To take someone's home and leave them out in the street so the taxpayer or the developer, someone else can benefit financially is wrong," Baker said. "The borough has thrown out numbers that they are going to make millions of dollars a year and certainly the developer is going to make a significant amount of money, so why should the person that is losing their property not be able to replace it?"

Yet, Baker's personal interest may take him out of the conversation entirely, explained Mayor Galbraith.

"Someone brought up last night the idea of him being in the redevelopment zone (if he) could even vote on it," Galbraith said. "I don't see how he could, that personally affects (him), it is a pretty direct link, but I could be wrong."

Even if Baker is not allowed to weigh in on the use of eminent domain, there is still a healthy list of other opportunities for him to get his voice in.

"I see myself as standing up for the taxpayer and really I don't see a whole lot of controversy there," he said. "I would say 25 percent of the issues that come up I may be controversial on. A lot of things local government votes on are really state mandated and our hands are tied."

Gloucester County NJ Times: http://www.nj.com/news/gloucester