A group of local business owners gathered in Brielle [NJ] March 20 to participate in an interactive and educational forum on the controversial issue of eminent domain.
The National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB) hosted the event, due mostly to increasing concerns from their membership.
"Clearly, our members have communicated the message that eminent domain is one of their biggest concerns, and we are responding," said Andrew M. Langer, regulatory policy manager and chief property rights activist from NFIB's Washington, D.C., office. Langer was the keynote speaker at the event and stated that 80 percent of the NFIB membership voted to include eminent domain as a legislative priority.
Several business owners from Long Branch, who are currently battling the city over property rights, attended the forum and expressed outrage at what is happening there. One landowner, who asked that his name be withheld, said, "Eminent domain is a terminal disease, which never goes away."
He said he has spent more than $400,000 in his effort to keep his property from being taken through eminent domain for a redevelopment project.
NFIB is a proponent of stronger eminent domain laws and believes that current legislation is doing little to protect the business community.
"The legislation being considered now has no teeth at all," said Laurie Ehlbeck, director of NFIB's New Jersey office. "Businesses will literally lose their livelihood if they are displaced."
Ehlbeck presented a listing of all eminent domain bills that have been introduced in the state Legislature starting in January 2006. "There are 31 bills in all," she said, adding, "Not one of them addresses all of the issues."
Recently, Sen. Ronald L. Rice (D-Essex) introduced S-1975, a comprehensive bill that is actually a merging of several other eminent domain bills, Ehlbeck said.
"I am still very concerned about issues of compensation. How can fair compensation be calculated when applied to someone's business?" she asked.
Langer, who discussed past cases involving eminent domain, expressed concerns about the definition of the word "blight" and the methods that municipalities use in applying that term. "When a city says an area is blighted and in need of redevelopment, that seems pretty nebulous," he said, and added, "I don't hold out much hope for legislative solutions in their present form."
Langer and Ehlbeck said they would like to see legislation that will force local governments to be more responsive to the business community and to change the way they are using eminent domain. The NFIB officials support legislation to restrict the definition of blight and to provide better notice to business owners.
"The burden of proof needs to be shifted to the municipality," Langer stated, and added, "It is their responsibility to define and prove that an area is blighted."
Ehlbeck said that notices of condemnation proceedings should always be sent by registered mail. Commenting on compensation and due process, both agreed that payment to property owners needs to be increased and due process expanded.
"People should have adequate opportunity to challenge the taking of their property," Langer said. He also feels that better compensation will make the municipality think twice about taking property at all.
NFIB and its legal wing, the NFIB Legal Foundation, have taken a very vocal stance in support of the Monmouth County business community, and recently became involved in an eminent domain case in Belmar.
The organization is supporting BMIA, the corporation that owns the Belmar Mall property, and has already filed an amicus brief with the Superior Court of N.J. Appellate Division, urging the court to find that the municipality of Belmar lacks sufficient evidence in applying the term "blight" to the property in question.
"Small businesses are at such great risk right now," Langer said. He explained that problems develop because small businesses will often go into areas "ripe for redevelopment" when looking for lower rents and lower operating costs.
"They don't realize what they are getting into," Langer said. "While I am skeptical of legislative solutions, I do believe that political leaders need to provide guidance, and that citizens themselves need to take responsibility by speaking out," he stated.
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NFIB is a small-business advocacy organization with offices in Washington, D.C., and all 50 state capitals.