Residents of two Lodi trailer parks left a Bergen County courtroom Tuesday optimistic that a three-judge panel will uphold a lower court ruling that the borough cannot seize their homes for redevelopment.
"I think we won," said Kendall Kardt, president of Save Our Homes, a residents group that has led the fight against the borough's attempt to condemn the trailer parks and take over the land using eminent domain. "My sense is this court will affirm the trial court, just on the merits."
Among the indicators the court could rule in favor of the residents were comments from state Appeals Court Judge Howard Kestin, who told Brown's Trailer Park attorney Jan Brody that his argument was "very well done" and referred to legal briefs submitted by the trailer parks' attorneys as "excellent."
More than 40 people who call trailers in Brown's Trailer Park and Costa Trailer Court home packed the small courtroom to hear borough and trailer park attorneys argue a key issue in the case: How much evidence a municipality must amass to prove that an area is blighted and in a condition that justifies the government's takeover of private property.
In October 2005, Superior Court Judge Richard Donahue ruled that the borough had not provided sufficient evidence that the trailer parks were in a condition meeting the definition of blight.
Borough officials appealed that decision, saying the use of eminent domain was in the community's best interest because if the land, some 20 acres along Route 46, is developed into a strip mall and upscale senior housing, it would bring increased tax revenues, allowing the borough to lower property taxes for its 25,000 residents.
Meanwhile, Brown's Trailer Park owner Robert Bonanno, 80, said Monday that he has his own plans to redevelop the site, but slowly and in a way that allows current residents to remain in their homes. Bonanno has leased two acres of the property for a QuickChek convenience store, and plans to develop another parcel of land. The entire site would be passed on to his family, he said, adding that he remains in full support of Save Our Homes.
In court Tuesday, John Baldino, attorney for the borough, said the court should overturn any municipality's decision to take property through eminent domain only if opponents can establish that the borough's decision was "completely arbitrary, capricious, and unreasonable."
"No question, it is a hardship when government takes homes," said Baldino. "Everybody pays the price when there is some kind of progress."
Planning board attorney Gerald Salerno said Lodi's planning board held eight hearings over nearly a year before voting to condemn the properties, a process that met the "substantial evidence" requirement for a blight determination, he said.
Attorneys for the trailer parks' owners and residents rejected that claim, noting that the borough did not systematically inspect the trailers, provide evidence of health or fire code violations, or otherwise substantiate its view that the parks deserved condemnation.
"There was not one iota of credible evidence, let alone substantial credible evidence, to support" a blight designation, said Brody.
Eminent domain cases, including those in Lodi and Long Branch, have garnered national attention, especially after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2005 that local governments can seize property for private economic development if it would benefit the public.
Two outside groups, Northeast New Jersey Legal Services and the New Jersey Public Advocate's Office, joined the Lodi case in "friend of the court" briefs that argued municipalities should be required to meet tougher standards when using eminent domain to take property that provides affordable housing where few comparable alternatives exist. Rents for most of the 200 or so Lodi trailers range from $425 to $600 a month, making the parks a scarce source of affordable housing in the borough. Many residents of the two parks are older or disabled.
But the judges appeared reluctant to expand the scope of their decision.
"We try not to make cases into more than they are when they come before us," said Judge Kestin, who was joined by Judges Edith Payne and Marie Lihotz. "Our sense of this case is that Judge Donohue made a judgment call on whether the proof satisfied the three statutory elements, and that's what we're going to decide on. We are not a policy-making court."
The judges gave no indication as to when they would issue their ruling.
Lodi Mayor Gary Paparozzi said the borough will not take the case to a higher court if it loses this appeal.
"We did what we did only because there are other people in Lodi we were trying to help as well," Paparozzi said. "If it doesn't work out, it doesn't work out."
But despite their optimism, residents such as Judy Kuchenmeister, 64, who lives in Brown's Trailer Park, said until the court rules, insecurity will dog them.
"You're living on eggshells," she said.
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