Lawmakers halt eminent domain action: Today's Sunbeam, Salem NJ, 3/1/07

By Trish Graber

A [New Jersey state] Senate measure to amend the state's eminent domain laws making the process more transparent and ensuring better compensation for property owners was derailed after state lawmakers wrangled over which version of the legislation to push forward.

Sen. Ron Rice, D-Essex, expected to move a bill out of a Senate committee which would require that municipalities post redevelopment plans, including all properties included in the plan, on the municipal Web site. The bill would narrow the definition of blight, give affected property owners first consideration to live in any new project constructed in the redevelopment area, and require that at least 80 percent of the area meet criteria for redevelopment.

If it had cleared the committee, the bill could have headed to the Senate floor for a vote. However, a similar bill, sponsored by Assemblyman John Burzichelli, D-Paulsboro, had already passed the lower house in June by a vote of 55-18-11, and was delayed in the Senate Community and Urban Affairs Committee which Rice chairs.

If signed into law, either piece of legislation would have state-wide implications on a matter that has impacted elections on a local level across the state.

Rice said his legislation pulled sections from each of 13 eminent domain bills introduced after the Supreme Court's 2005 Kelo v. City of New London, Conn., decision which allowed local government to use eminent domain for a private project. Previously, eminent domain procedures were restricted to public projects, like schools or highways.

Sen. Stephen Sweeney, D-3 of West Deptford, who sponsored Burzichelli's bill in the upper house, said the assemblyman worked extensively on the legislation, meeting with stakeholders from across the state.

"John Burzichelli worked extra hard on the bill, from the League of Municipalities to the Public Advocate," he said. "We just don't want to have John's work cast aside. We're willing to work with Sen. Rice."

After a closed-door meeting with Sweeney and Sen. Fred Madden, D-4 of Washington Township, who serves on the committee, Rice announced that he would take testimony but hold the legislation in order to sort out concerns with his colleagues.

Rice said he was willing to merge his measure with the already existing proposal.

"We're going to move this bill one way or the other," he said. "Or (the eminent domain process) is going to remain status quo."

Rice's bill would also establish a Land Use Court, which would hear land-related disputes within 90 days of a challenge. Decisions could be appealed to the Appellate Division.

The state's Public Advocate, who testified at Monday's hearing, endorsed Burzichelli's bill.

Public Advocate Ronald Chen said he takes issue with language that allows "a lack of utilization" of an area, and other broad criteria, to deem a specific property blighted in Rice's the first step in condemning land that can be taken through eminent domain.

"The blight criteria still fall short of imposing the kind of objective limitations that provide meaningful protections," he said.

Today's Sunbeam, Salem NJ: http://www.nj.com/news/sunbeam