Trust lacking in fight over Long Branch development: Asbury Park NJ Press, 2/19/07

By Carol Gorga Williams

Eminent domain opponent Denise Hoagland on Tuesday walked up to the podium and issued a challenge to Mayor Adam Schneider: Prove you are really interested in negotiating a settlement in the Marine Terrace, Ocean Terrace and Seaview Avenue case.

Hoagland, of MTOTSA, a local anti-eminent domain group, was critical of Schneider's statement that he still is interested in settling the controversial case, which is now before the state appellate division after the city prevailed at the trial level.

So Schneider did. City Attorney James G. Aaron produced three letters the lawyer had written to Peter H. Wegener, a Lakewood attorney who, along with the Institute for Justice, an Arlington, Va., law firm, is representing the majority of MTOTSA property owners who are fighting eminent domain. The city has settled with half the 38 property owners.

Aaron's letters are dated Oct. 8, and Nov. 28, on which Aaron wrote two letters.

In one, Aaron wrote, "the city is anxious to return to the negotiating table, and timing is critical."

Timing is an issue for the MTOTSA side as well. Lawyers representing the property owners met with the city on Oct. 11 to discuss a settlement but on Oct. 24, the city filed a motion seeking to block the institute, which is representing the property owners for free and whose lawyers are specialists in eminent domain, from representing MTOTSA. That motion failed, and Hoagland said "that's a nice play-nice tactic. It's not a fair game."

Schneider acknowledged it was "the one thing I would undo. It wasn't the right move.

"I'm willing to discuss settling this case," Schneider said. "I've been willing since this became controversial to settle the case. I think it will be a very difficult negotiation . . . judging from the names we are called at council meetings. There have got to be intermediaries. You can't sit there and call me a liar when we've been very consistent about saying what we're going to do."

Both sides agreed
After the Oct. 8 meeting, both sides agreed not to discuss the specifics publicly and would only stipulate the issues they focused on had nothing to do with money. But Schneider isn't sure what the attorneys are telling their clients.

"We were prepared to redesign the plan to help them save their homes," Schneider said. "We were prepared to discuss extremely generous financial terms. We were prepared to pick up homes and move them closer to the ocean. But we've gotten no response, and now we're being told we made no attempt to negotiate, which is clearly not true."

When Schneider on Tuesday attempted to explain this, Hoagland said he was speaking "fabricated crap." She expanded her explanation later in the week.

"He talks like it is a negotiation to settle a problem," she said. "It is a negotiation to get where he wants, whereby people are selling their home for private benefits."

When told of Schneider's position that he would redesign the plan to allow some residents to stay in their home — this also includes a proposal to eliminate the public pavilion the developer proposed in favor of relocating MTOTSA homes — Hoagland said the city needs public spaces desperately.

"Where is that on paper?" she said of Schneider's offers. She said she remains unconvinced of the city's sincerity.

"Basically the question is what are they bringing to the table? The only thing I believe they are bringing to the table is "who can we whittle out of here; who is weak?' "

Nowhere in the letters does Aaron seek a list of MTOTSA owners willing to sell, although both Wegener and Hoagland say that it what the city really is seeking.

Wegener has not explained why he never answered the city's letters, saying he will not negotiate in the newspaper.

"I don't think that is going to accomplish anything," he said. "All that is, is something that politicians think is important to try to puff up their image. The fact of the matter is, if they are looking at who we are going to sell out, the answer is we are not going to sell out anybody."

Confused by response
Schneider said he is confused by the MTOTSA response that the city is looking for a list of people who will sell. Rather, he said, the request for "information" came from Wegener who said Oct. 11 that he needed to go back to his clients to find out such things as who would be willing to relocate within the MTOTSA enclave.

Institute for Justice Senior Attorney Scott G. Bullock, who also attended the Oct. 8 negotiating session, said the best thing the city could do to demonstrate good faith is dismiss the eminent domain complaints against the property owners.

Bullock referred to a redevelopment plan MTOTSA had put together, which was abandoned after the city sent MTOTSA a letter asking for additional information that MTOTSA maintains it had no ability to answer.

"We were very clear the property owners want to keep their homes," Bullock said. "Their position is they are not planners, they are not developers," Bullock said. "If the city has something in mind whereby the eminent domain actions are dropped and the homes are saved — reconfiguring the development to make that more feasible — . . . I'm happy to listen to what they have to say and present it to the property owners."

More than just land
Councilman Brian A. Unger, who campaigned with MTOTSA's support, said the possibility of relocation includes another lot — a one-acre parcel on the oceanfront just north of the beach club. But he said the opposition might be about more than just the land.

"The ones (who) are the leaders of the group are in it for principle at this point," he said. "It is difficult to negotiate with the city when this is a political and moral principle, and I think it is going to be difficult to move off this baseline."

Still, Unger asked Aaron to prepare two maps, one which would show what the relocated neighborhood would look like near the beach club, and one in which the residences were clustered on Ocean and Marine terraces. He said something visual might help convince the residents to give negotiation a second chance.

"I ask the city and the developers to exercise additional compassion and to understand emotions and to try to understand one reason the residents have been reluctant to negotiate is there is a lot of emotional history here and it has become a great political and moral issue and most of these folks are willing to stick it out on principle rather than for their own personal gain and I'm not particularly sanguine there will be a settlement until we hear from the higher courts."

Move past anger
Unger said both sides should "move past the anger." Meanwhile, Schneider is proposing any future negotiations be done in the presence of the press, to prevent the inevitable spin.

"They use the press to their advantage to garner sympathy but I don't think they've been very honest about this," Schneider said. "We're willing to put everything on the table to resolve this. If they really want to negotiate, fine. If they want the court to decide it, fine."

Asbury Park NJ Press: www.app.com