Tenant sues to block eminent domain: Atlanticville, Long Branch NJ, 3/1/07

By Christine Varno

A Long Branch tenant is taking legal action in an attempt to save his home, and ultimately his neighborhood, from condemnation for a private redevelopment project.

Attorney Barbara J. Gonos, West Long Branch, filed a letter brief in Superior Court Feb. 20, to block the city's use of eminent domain to acquire the home of Melrose Terrace resident Bill Nordahl.

Nordahl, 69, a tenant for more than 40 years in the Marine Terrace, Ocean Terrace and Seaview Avenue neighborhood known as MTOTSA, said this week that although he is not a homeowner, he still has the right to remain in his home.

"My neighbors have a case to fight the takings, but I am not a property owner, so I was left out," said Nordahl Monday.

"I have been here for 40 years," he said. "It is my home and I just believe that tearing down this neighborhood to build condominiums is wrong.

"This is a nice neighborhood," he said.

Nordahl's arguments are expected to be heard before Judge Lawrence M. Lawson in Freehold tomorrow at 10 a.m.

Approximately 22 property owners in MTOTSA have retained William J. Ward of Florham Park, Peter H. Wegener of Lakewood, and Scott Bullock of the Institute for Justice (IJ) to appeal a June 22 Superior Court decision that permitted the condemnation of the neighborhood for a private redevelopment project.

Plans for the three-street MTOTSA neighborhood call for developer MM Beachfront North II - consisting of Matzel & Mumford, a division of K. Hovnanian, Middletown, and the Applied Cos., Hoboken - to raze the modest homes and construct luxury condominiums in their place.

Nordahl said he has remained involved with the MTOTSA mission to fight the takings of the homes, but as a renter, he was excluded from taking formal legal action.

That was until mid-February when the water company attempted to turn off Nordahl's water.

"My utilities were going to be turned off," Nordahl said. "I called my landlord and he told me he had agreed to a friendly condemnation."

A friendly condemnation allows the city to acquire property through eminent domain without objection by the homeowner, Nordahl explained.

"I heard my landlord might be selling, but no one told me anything," he said.

Property owners Mark and Kathleen Suave sold their Melrose Terrace home to the city last month. Nordahl has been a month-to-month rental residential tenant since the 1960s.

Nordahl said the developers told him that they would keep the utilities connected and advised him to look into relocation assistance from the city.

"I have been offered relocation benefits, but I did not take them," Nordahl said. "I am fighting this. This is my neighborhood."

Attorney Paul V. Fernicola, of Red Bank, will be representing the city in the case and could not be reached for comment.

Gonos explained Tuesday that Nordahl did not start this legal action, that in fact the city started it.

"On Friday, Feb. 9, Bill was served with papers by the city," Gonos said explaining that the papers were "an eminent domain condemnation action."

"If Mr. Nordahl did not have a proper right to take this action, then the city would have never named him as a defendant," Gonos said, adding, "But they had to name him as a defendant because he has a property interest."

Although Gonos said Nordahl has every right to sue the city, she did add that if the court finds that he doesn't have standing because he is a tenant, he still has a case.

"He has the standing to bring a counterclaim, where he asks the court to enforce the redevelopment plan of 1996," she said, explaining that the original plan includes Nordahl's home remaining intact.

Nordahl said he has two objectives for the suit: to remain in the apartment that has been his home for more than four decades; and to stop the redevelopment of his home and his neighborhood.

In the brief, Gonos asks the court to dismiss the condemnation complaint served on Nordahl's home. Additionally she seeks a plenary hearing to determine whether the city is acting in the best interests of the people it serves.

Gonos argues several points in the brief, including that the city's use of eminent domain to take some homes in the MTOTSA area and allow other properties to remain is "arbitrary and capricious."

According to the brief, the six-unit Seaview Park Condominium complex at 152 Ocean Ave. is in the MTOTSA neighborhood, but was excluded from the city's plans to seize properties through eminent domain.

The complex also lies in an area where residential uses are prohibited, according to the brief.

By ordinance, the city reserved all Ocean Avenue fronting tracts in the sector from Ocean Place Resort & Spa to Seven Presidents Park for public beachfront recreation uses, according to the brief.

"Why the city exempted the homes on this lot from the eminent domain taking of all other homes in the neighborhood, especially in light of its nonconforming use, is inexplicable in terms of the city's plans and corresponding goals, and is, therefore, arbitrary at best," Gonos states in the brief.

Gonos also argues that Nordahl was never given the opportunity to object to a redevelopment plan that would demolish his neighborhood.

The city adopted a redevelopment plan in 1996 that designated Nordahl's neighborhood as Beachfront North Phase II, and called for "infill" of the lots in the zone, according to the brief.

In 2005, the city's redevelopment plan called for the neighborhood to be replaced by three luxury condominium buildings.

"I did not get notified of the [1996] plan," Nordahl said. "And I never got notified of the changes. [The city] did not send anything to the renters, so I did not have a chance to object."

Gonos said in the brief, "The city bases its authority to demolish Mr. Nordahl's neighborhood and replace it with three luxury condominium buildings, on its 1996 redevelopment plan.

"Yet, nothing in the plan indicates the neighborhood would be demolished, and everything in the plan indicates the homes therein will remain in tact," she said.

Nordahl said in an interview that if the city is going to pursue redevelopment plans, the courts should enforce the 1996 redevelopment, which would allow for his neighborhood to remain intact.

Gonos also argues in the brief that the neighborhood is not blighted and the razing of the properties in MTOTSA to make way for luxury condominiums serves no public purpose.

Additionally, Gonos claims that the redevelopment plan places a burden on the lack of affordable and low-income housing, both locally and statewide, according to the brief.

Nordahl said a couple of years back, when he learned his home was slated to be seized, he decided to fight the taking.

"I knocked on doors of all my neighbors," Nordahl said, "and we established a core group and a bigger group. We came up with the name MTOTSA.

"Since then it has been a group effort," he said.

Atlanticville, Long Branch NJ: http://atlanticville.gmnews.com