It's been said that Long Branch has become the poster child for eminent domain abuse, but last week Mayor Adam Schneider offered another perspective.
Schneider was one of three panelists at a forum on eminent domain at Brookdale Community College in Lincroft March 28.
In addition to Schneider, panelists included Stuart Meck, director of the Center for Government Services at the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers; and William Potter, an attorney in the Princeton law firm of Potter and Dickson which specializes in land use.
While Meck outlined the rulings of a U.S. Supreme Court property rights case that favored private redevelopers, Potter explained that there are ways other than eminent domain to revive a community.
The public forum was sponsored by The League of Women Voters of Monmouth County.
In defending Long Branch's exercise of eminent domain to further a city-wide redevelopment, Schneider noted that the city has received recognition for its plans.
"I did not take this job because I wanted to be a spokesman for eminent domain," said Schneider, who has held the office since being elected in 1990.
"I am a spokesman for Long Branch and I am damn proud of what we accomplished," he said. "I intend to continue what we are doing and it is going to be a much better city when we are done."
Schneider told the crowd that filled the room at Brookdale that the redevelopment underway in Long Branch has been recognized by the state planning association, the county and praised twice by Gov. Jon Corzine as "a model for how an urban area should do redeveloped."
He called the city's plan "thoughtful" and "balanced" with set goals.
Meck called attention to the June 23, 2005, U.S. Supreme Court decision in Kelo v. New London (Conn.), a property rights case, affirming the taking of private homes for economic redevelopment.
"The Kelo decision weakened property rights, but may ultimately strengthen them," he said.
"It made property owners, especially in working-class neighborhoods, aware of what could actually happen with the exercise of eminent domain."
According to Meck, the Kelo decision was "the correct legal decision."
"I felt they followed precedent," he said. "They recognized the issue of economic development is a complex one and deferred to the state to solve the problem."
Since the decision almost two years ago, 34 states, not including New Jersey, have passed legislation to ban eminent domain, according to Meck.
Schneider told the forum that Long Branch has followed every law in developing its redevelopment plan that designated six redevelopment zones in the city, affecting some 600 properties.
When elected almost two decades ago, Schneider said he was considered the anti-development candidate.
"I did not like what I thought was a lack of planning," he said.
Two years into office, Schneider said he was approached by a group of city residents, known as Long Branch Tomorrow, who said something needed to be done with the deteriorating city,
"We made a couple of smart moves," he said, explaining that the city hired a planning firm and established redevelopment zones throughout the city.
In 2000, the city awarded its first development agreement for the Pier Village project, which broke ground in 2001.
"There was more economic activity in Long Branch in January and February than in August," he said. "It is a destination again, which is exactly what we said we were going to do."
The city then awarded a contract for the Beachfront North project which broke ground in 2003. At the same time, the city built 100 for-sale units and rehabilitated 500 affordable rental houses, according to Schneider.
"We maintained a police force for a safer community," he said, " And we bought land for open space and parks.
"We exposed ourselves to election every four years, telling people what we are doing and we never deviated from that," he said.
Long Branch resident Michelle Bobrow told the panelists that she purchased a brandnew condominium on Ocean Boulevard in 1990.
"I was told there was going to be infill," she said, asking," What recourse do we have?"
Schneider replied that the city did not say her property, which lies in the Beachfront South redevelopment zone, was slated for infill.
Potter added, "Unfortunately you have to go to court."
Long Branch resident Bruce MacCloud, whose Cooper Avenue home was taken for the Beachfront North phase I redevelopment project almost five years ago, asked the panelists where the justice system is.
"I still haven't been to court," said MacCloud, who is disputing the amount of compensation the city paid for his home.
A business owner spoke in support of the Schneider administration plan.
John Bonforte, president of Monmouth Rubber and Plastics Corp. in the Broadway redevelopment zone, said his business has been at its location for 40 years.
"We couldn't get females to work in the building," he said. "How would you have gotten rid of the murders and the properties you couldn't give away.
"The mayor is the boots on the street," Bonforte added.
Potter said at the forum that taking properties for private redevelopment projects, even if the current state statutes allow it, is un-American.
"Eminent domain and redevelopment is going on around the state of New Jersey at an incredible pace," Potter said. "We always come up again with the notion that it is a necessary evil.
"It is just not American," he said, adding, "Your property is your right."
The current statutes governing redevelopment and eminent domain could be perceived as fraud, Potter explained.
"When you hear [your home is] in a redevelopment area, do you think 'my home is blighted?' No.
"You think great, we will redevelop this area and I will be part of the growth.
"If it is a redevelopment area, it is a blighted area," he said.
Potter also said there is not enough research to determine the lasting benefits of redevelopment projects and the displacement of residents for the projects.
"We have no good data when we talk about reform," he said. "We are allowing redevelopers to conduct an experiment on New Jersey at an incredible pace.
"Frankly, I don't think we should continue this experiment on ourselves," he said.
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