Panel delays eminent domain vote: Cherry Hill NJ Courier Post, 2/27/07

By Gregory J Volpe

A [new Jersey] Senate panel did not vote as planned on an eminent domain reform measure Monday, after an apparent standoff between an Essex County senator and Gloucester County lawmakers who are advancing competing bills.

Last June, the Assembly passed a measure spearheaded by Assemblyman John Burzichelli, D-Paulsboro, that aims to place more hurdles for redeveloping towns, limit what land can be taken and increase compensation for taken property.

Sen. Ronald Rice, D-Newark, chairman of the Senate Community and Urban Affairs Committee, hoped for a vote on his own bill, which has similar aims, but different mechanics. After an impromptu meeting with Burzichelli's district-mate, Sen. Stephen Sweeney, D-West Deptford, who sponsors an identical measure to the one passed by the Assembly, Rice announced he was postponing the vote for another meeting.

"We have a better product here, on everybody's account, including the public advocate's," Rice said after the hearing. "Take a look at it. . . . Some of the things in it are extractions from (Burzichelli's) bill."

Public Advocate Ronald K. Chen, who endorsed Burzichelli's measure even though it didn't include a pay-to-play ban or strong enough affordable housing provisions, had concerns with Rice's bill, saying it did not go far enough in defining blighted land that could be taken, placing strong burdens of proof on municipalities seeking to take land or providing fair replacement housing.

"There are certain provisions that I think are an improvement, but there are others that I still have some concerns about," said Chen, who wants to see a final version of the legislation before picking sides.

Chen said Rice's measure does go further with public notice and assistance for displaced tenants.

Burzichelli denied an adversarial effort to reform eminent domain.

"I don't think "standoff' is the right word," Burzichelli said. "We expect in this process work in the one house builds upon the other. We always expect if there's going to be changes, it's going to come back better."

Burzichelli said he didn't have a chance to study Rice's measure to compare the differences. Sweeney did not return phone calls Monday afternoon.

One of the major differences highlighted Monday was creating a land use court that would deal solely with eminent domain-related cases.

Dan Phillips, legislative liaison for New Jersey's court system, said that would cost about $10 million annually and won't speed up a process that resolves such cases in six to eight months.

"They are some of our highest priority cases and we try to move them quickly," Phillips said.

Rice, whose measure calls for the court to hear complaints within 90 days, said six months is too long. "When it comes to poor people needing representation, you say we don't have any money," Rice said.

Jeff Tittel, director of the Sierra Club's New Jersey chapter, said Rice's measure will hasten the permitting process for developers.

"Burzichelli's is a step in the right direction," Tittel said. "It still has a ways to go, but this is two steps backward."

Another difference is requiring municipalities to declare areas in need of condemnation to specify which parcels might be taken in redevelopment projects.

Bill Potter, chairman of the New Jersey Coalition Against Eminent Domain Abuse, said that's a positive step but decried the measure's grandfather clause, which allows any project with any stage of municipal approval to proceed under old guidelines.

"Here we are dealing with eminent domain abuse in New Jersey, which is ground zero in the country, and we've got this 60-page bill and it doesn't do anything for any of the cases that are out there," Potter said.

Some critics want to ban any eminent domain used for private redevelopment.

"This is a swinging door to corruption," said Sen. Leonard T. Connors Jr., R-Surf City.

Cherry Hill NJ Courier Post: http://www.courierpostonline.com