New Jersey is so built up that long-term economic growth will depend on the revitalization of its cities with new industry, housing and stores. But significant redevelopment is unlikely to occur if the current campaign to demonize eminent domain and restrict its uses is allowed to succeed.
Joseph Maraziti Jr., a prominent land use lawyer and a driving force behind the effort to steer developers to the cities, argued at a conference in Trenton last month that eminent domain is an essential tool if urban land is to be cleared for redevelopment and that without it a handful of holdout property owners could block almost any redevelopment project. If that were to happen, he suggested, New Jersey’s economy would eventually suffocate since the state — already the most densely populated in the country — is running out of open land.
The New Jersey Legislature is nearing final approval of a measure that would tighten the standards for eminent domain and increase significantly what cities and towns would have to pay unwilling sellers. Approved by the Assembly but stalled in the State Senate, the bill arises in part from the negative reaction to a 2005 United States Supreme Court decision in a Connecticut case that upheld the use of eminent domain for private development, even if the land is not blighted. It also stems, however, from a well-founded reaction against politicians in a few New Jersey towns who have invoked the threat of eminent domain to pressure owners of viable small businesses to sell to favored developers.
Redevelopment advocates agree that legislation is needed to stop heavy-handed tactics and to make compensation reflect today’s prices. But they also fear that by providing incentives for property owners to hold out for exorbitant prices, the bill would make it difficult, if not prohibitively expensive, for cities to invoke eminent domain.
The sponsor, Assemblyman John Burzichelli, a Gloucester Democrat, says this is not his intention and that he only wants to insure that residents and owners are paid fair prices and are given adequate advance notice of plans to take their property, and that only truly blighted areas are condemned.
But one section of the bill is especially troublesome. It would base payments to owners on a combination of fair market value and estimates of the income that the redeveloped property would generate. While that approach might have merit in the case of long-term owners and residents, it would be an outrageously high price to pay slumlords, speculators and owners who leave toxic waste on their property.
Mr. Burzichelli says there is no way his bill could constitutionally distinguish between good owners and bad owners. But the state’s public advocate, Ronald Chen, who supports Mr. Burzichelli’s bill, says the flaw can be “fixed in a minute. ” If so, the Legislature should fix it.
Equally important is that the Senate take whatever time it needs to review this complicated issue. Changes in the law may be required in the interest of fairness, but they should not reward speculators or be so crippling as to jeopardize the future health of New Jersey’s cities and its economy.
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