Chen will issue second eminent domain report : Atlanticville, Long Branch NJ, 4/12/07

Follow-up report will challenge blight designation

By Christine Varno

Almost a year after the release of a study on the use of eminent domain for redevelopment projects in New Jersey communities like Long Branch, state Public Advocate Ronald K. Chen will follow up with a more in-depth report on the issue.

The report is expected to be complete within the next four to six weeks, according to Chen, who said it will contain examples from eminent domain cases he has researched.

Those findings, he said, will support the eminent domain reforms recommended in the initial report.

"Our first report was done at a time when I was first getting into office and into the eminent domain issue," said Chen in an interview last week. "For that reason, we decided not to get too into specifics.

"We have been at it for a year now and we have had a greater opportunity to explore the issue. We thought it would be useful to put those findings in a second report."

In the past year, Chen's office submitted amicus curiae, or "friend of the court," briefs in support of residents of three municipalities fighting their towns' use of eminent domain: Long Branch, Lodi and Paulsboro.

In the Long Branch brief, Chen asks the appellate court to allow a group of residents to have their day in court to challenge the city's use of eminent domain to condemn their oceanfront properties.

In addition to filing the briefs, Chen and his office staff have studied eminent domain procedural findings and court records in towns across the state where officials are using eminent domain to acquire property for private redevelopment projects.

Those findings will be presented in the second report, which could be titled "Eminent Domain, The Year After" or "What We Have Learned," according to Chen.

"In this report we will be able to show scenarios where we think reform is needed," he said, adding that the first report concentrated on the legal aspects of eminent domain and contained general examples.

The follow-up study will present factual data to highlight the points made in the first report, he added.

"We will show more human experiences, because we have now had the chance to go in-depth in the records in litigated cases," he said. "We have more facts to draw from."

One such case is in Long Branch, where a group of residents on the oceanfront are fighting the city's use of eminent domain to condemn their properties for a private redevelopment project.

Chen's amicus brief was filed in state Superior Court to support the group of Long Branch homeowners who reside in the neighborhood of Marine Terrace, Ocean Terrace and Seaview Avenue known as MTOTSA.

The brief supports MTOTSA's appeal of a June ruling by Judge Lawrence M. Lawson that affirmed the city's right to take the homes of residents in the three-street neighborhood to make way for a private redevelopment project.

Long Branch Mayor Adam Schneider has been a critic of Chen's report and his involvement in the Long Branch case.

After Chen filed the amicus brief in January, Schneider had said that Chen was uninformed of the redevelopment process in Long Branch.

"He decided to go into the case without meeting with any officials in Long Branch," Schneider said in the January interview. "Mr. Chen has never accurately reviewed the redevelopment process in Long Branch."

But Chen said he does not expect every mayor to agree with the content of the report.

"The issue of eminent domain is controversial," Chen said. "But, all of the furor over the mere fact of filing a brief seems to be misplaced.

"In a case like Long Branch, that raises these important issues, it is the role of the advocate," he said.

Chen explained that after researching the MTOTSA case, he has determined the area is not blighted.

"Most of the problem with the MTOTSA case is that the trial judge did not allow for a full record to be developed," he said.

"There has to be a full record, and based on the record we have seen in court, there does not seem to be sufficient evidence that the MTOTSA area is blighted."

Another issue facing the MTOTSA case, he added, is that the residents faced with losing their homes were not made aware of the consequences of having a home in an area in need of redevelopment.

In the upcoming report, Chen said he is continuing a similar perspective as the first report, with the addition of more facts and real-life experiences.

The first report, "Reforming the Use of Eminent Domain for Private Redevelopment in New Jersey" was released May 18. In that report, Chen recommended several reforms, including:

  • Narrow the statutory criteria for designating an area as "blighted" to require that the criteria provide objective and specific limitations on the ability to use eminent domain for private redevelopment;
  • Promote rehabilitation of properties rather than redevelopment;
  • Make the redevelopment process "transparent" by instituting reforms including notifying tenants and property owners of public hearings 60 days in advance; require that hearings be recorded; allow affected residents to bring their own witnesses;
  • Add protections to help ensure that eminent domain is used as a last resort; and
  • Require that homeowners who do lose their homes are compensated with at least the replacement value of their home and are able to remain in the town they live in.

Chen said last week that the first report lists recommended reforms, while his aim in the second report is to be more specific by citing examples and more real-life experiences.

Chen was nominated to head the Department of the Public Advocate in January by Gov. Jon S. Corzine. When his office began operations on March 27, he announced that its first major initiative would be to investigate the uses of eminent domain for private redevelopment.

Although Chen recommends numerous reforms in the initial report, he does not suggest banning the use of eminent domain.

Rather, he states in the report, "redevelopment of truly blighted areas is a legitimate purpose that serves the greater good by helping revitalize communities and create more opportunity for residents."

His recommendation in the first report is to change the statutory criteria that define blight to put strict limitations on the ability of municipalities to use eminent domain for private redevelopment.

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