Public advocate fights eminent domain misuse: Asbury NJ Park Press, 3/28/07

Officials want to improve their towns, build tax bases, says Chen, but he's opposed to taking people's homes against their will

By Carol Gorga Williams

State Public Advocate Ronald K. Chen took one look at last year's court decision that upheld Long Branch's right to take oceanview homes by eminent domain and knew he had to fight it.

Chen, appearing before the Asbury Park Press editorial board Tuesday, on the first anniversary of the reincarnation of his Cabinet-level office, described the motivation for choosing Long Branch's proposed redevelopment of the second phase of Beachfront North as one of three eminent domain cases in the state he opted to oppose.

"Many mayors — and I can't fault them for this — want their town to be the Emerald City," Chen said. "It is now a concept of increasing ratables and making your town look pretty. All things being equal, I don't think that is what eminent domain should be used for."

The other communities Chen is taking on are Lodi and Paulsboro. In Lodi, the municipality wants to seize 20 acres on Route 46, currently home to a 200-unit trailer park, and convert it into a strip mall and upscale senior housing.

In Paulsboro, the advocate is fighting the borough's decision to designate a 63-acre vacant waterfront parcel "underutilized" so it can give way to a commercial port on the Delaware River. Arguments before the state Supreme Court are scheduled for April 26.

And in Long Branch, Chen also has filed a "friend of the court" brief in support of property owners in the Marine Terrace, Ocean Terrace, Seaview Avenue neighborhood where about 20 owners are fighting the city's plan to replace homes and vacant lots with about 185 upscale condominiums.

Mayor Adam Schneider has challenged Chen's fact-checking in deciding in August to support the MTOTSA community without meeting with city officials to review their methodology in declaring the neighborhood "one in need of redevelopment."

Schneider ultimately met with representatives of the advocate's office in December.

He reviewed the evidence
But Chen said Tuesday he does not need to see the city's materials because he reviewed the entire record before Superior Court Judge Lawrence M. Lawson, who issued the June 22 ruling permitting the city to proceed. The place for that evidence is before the court, not in his office, Chen said.

Schneider, contacted after Tuesday's editorial board session, said Chen was being "disingenuous."

"Oh, that's ridiculous," Schneider said of Chen's position. "He called me up a year ago and indicated he wanted to study the issue and understand it thoroughly. He wanted to meet with us. And the next time I heard from him (in August) was when he held a press conference" saying he would oppose the city's plan.

"He did that without reviewing 15 years of work" the city did, Schneider said.

"The fact is he's been intellectually dishonest in his approach to the issue and as it applies to Long Branch," the mayor said.

MTOTSA is appealing Lawson's decision, and briefs, due next month, are being prepared.

"If they are going to make the case, it's not me who needs to examine those documents, it is the court," Chen said after the editorial board meeting. "Every time Mayor Schneider says "I've got all this relevant evidence,' I say, "Why didn't you present it to the court?'

"On the issue of eminent domain, and on Long Branch particularly, I was completely and utterly informed," said Chen, noting Lawson should have permitted MTOTSA a hearing in which evidence could have been presented. Instead, Lawson ruled after listening to oral arguments and examining exhibits.

"Blight" label misused
Chen said the MTOTSA neighborhood is not blighted and criticized what he termed the "drive-by" examination performed by the city that researched whether the 38-parcel community met the definition of blight. (About half the property owners have settled with the city or the developer.)

Chen, who plans this year to issue a follow-up to his landmark May 18 report on eminent domain and its abuses, said he wants definitions for blight tightened, notice to property owners improved, and "just compensation" to include replacement value. In some cases, he added, owners should receive the enhanced value from the anticipated redevelopment project.

While he supports an Assembly bill that addresses some of his concerns, the Senate version is stuck in committee.

"I have not promoted an utter moratorium but obviously there are areas in dire need of reform if this is to survive," said Chen, noting that "expected sources" have opposed the reforms.

Chen has taken on other issues in his first year, advancing measures to help students in special-education programs and on behalf of people with mental illness and developmental disabilities. He also has advocated for voters' rights.

He said he is monitoring the costs of beach fees in coastal communities and is seeking ways to enter beach access issues — a traditional responsibility of the public advocate.

Asbury NJ Park Press: www.app.com