Jackson may take land for housing: Asbury Park NJ Press, 2/12/07

Township wants owners to sell

By Fraidy Reiss

Some 80 years ago, Roger Gilbert's great-grandmother won a small piece of land in [Jackson Township NJ] as a door prize from a New York City theater.

Since then, the 20-by-100-foot parcel, which lies in the woods just north of West County Line Road, has been passed down in his family through four generations, he said. Gilbert inherited the lot from his father about a decade ago, and he hopes one day to give it to his son, David, who is now 15.

"The land itself is so small, it's not really worth a lot of money," said Gilbert, 52, who lives in Bethlehem, Pa. "It's strictly sentimental value."

But the Gilbert family tradition may end before David inherits the land.

The town wants to acquire Gilbert's lot and 22 other small, undeveloped parcels in the area so it can build affordable housing. And under the terms of an ordinance scheduled for a public hearing on Tuesday, the town would acquire the lots either by negotiating with the property owners or by invoking its power of eminent domain.

That power gives government the right to take private property for a public purpose, after paying the owner just compensation.

To Gilbert, though, that power is "un-American."

"It goes against my very upbringing as a U.S. citizen, this eminent domain," he said. "It's wrong for a township to come in and take (property) without getting the approval of the people."

Solar Avenue project
The project for which Jackson plans to acquire Gilbert's and other lots, called Solar Avenue, calls for 100 low- and moderate-income rental units, said John Russo Jr., the township affordable-housing attorney. The units would be built on 20 acres north of West County Line Road and west of Christopher Columbus Boulevard.

The units would partially fulfill the town's affordable-housing requirement, set forth by the state Council on Affordable Housing, Russo said. He added that Jackson's COAH requirements are the second-highest in the state, behind Toms River.

If the town acquires all 20 acres, it will sell them for $1 to an affordable-housing developer, Russo said. The developer then would apply for funding, build the rental units and manage them, he said.

Acquiring the land
Jackson already owns more than half of the 20-acre area on which the Solar Avenue project would be built. The town acquired several parcels as a result of property tax defaults, and last month it purchased another 10 acres, Russo said.

That purchase, from co-owners Barbara Klein Halpern of West Long Branch and Eva Mermini of Tinton Falls, closed on Jan. 24 and cost the town $250,000, said Kevin Starkey, the attorney who represented the town.

Jackson paid for the 10-acre property with affordable-housing fees it has collected from developers over many years, Russo said. And over the next few months it hopes to use the same money to acquire the remaining 4.15 acres of the 20-acre site, he said.

"No taxpayer money is used to fund this project," Russo said.

The 4.15 acres consist of lots ranging in size from .04 acres to .64 acres.

Other New Jersey towns have used their power of eminent domain to take property for affordable housing, said attorney Peter H. Wegener of Lakewood, who represents Long Branch homeowners fighting eminent domain in their town.

"Whenever you get involved in taking property from one individual to give (to) another individual for residential purposes, you have a questionable situation," Wegener said.

However, the Solar Avenue situation is not as "black and white" as the one in Long Branch, he said. The 23 lots Jackson wants to acquire are vacant, he pointed out, and they are difficult to develop because they are so small.

Jackson would offer to pay fair market value, as determined by an appraiser, to the 16 owners of the 23 lots, Mayor Mark A. Seda said. Officials plan to use eminent domain only as a last resort, if any owners refuse to sell, he said.

"I don't want to do it, but if I have to, I will," Seda said.

Birthday gift
Chris Rosetto is not sure if he wants to sell.

The 47-year-old Toms River resident received a small piece of vacant property when he turned 14, as a birthday gift from his father. He remembered bringing his friends to the wooded 20-by-100-foot lot and telling them he would live there some day.

"They laughed at me," he said with a grin.

Now Rosetto is "disappointed" to learn Jackson wants to acquire his lot — and if he does not agree on a purchase price, the town will resort to eminent domain, he and his wife Myrtle said.

"I never heard of your property being taken away from you, for what the government thinks you should have, to build a house for somebody else," Myrtle Rosetto, 49, said.

"It's unbelievable," Chris Rosetto agreed. "That's your government, though."

Asbury Park NJ Press: http://www.app.com