High court hears Gloucester eminent domain case: Newark NJ Star-Ledger, 4/26/07

The [New Jersey] state Supreme Court heard arguments today in a Gloucester County eminent domain case that could shape the future use of condemnation for private redevelopment.

State Public Advocate Ronald K. Chen argued that because current state law defines "blight'' so broadly it could apply to virtually any property in New Jersey, the high court must narrow the definition to protect the rights of property owners.

"It has become a wild card definition of blight that can expand and contract to apply to any set of circumstances,'' he told the justices.

The case involves an attempt by the Paulsboro government to declare blighted and claim by eminent domain 63 acres of land on Mantua Creek near the Delaware River owned by George Gallenthin for possible use as part of a planned privately-operated deepwater port the borough plans to develop on the river.

Arguments center around the state's 15-year-old Local Redevelopment and Housing Law, which expanded the definition of blight to require that an area be declared blighted before a municipality can use eminent domain to take property and hand it over to private developers.

James Maley, counsel for Paulsboro, argued the borough is not doing anything improper and is following the law as it exists. One section of the law allows government to condemn land for private redevelopment if it deems the land to be "in need of redevelopment" because it is "not fully productive.'' The law also allows local governments to seize private property if it suffers from a "lack of utilization'' and could be put to a more beneficial use.

The Public Advocate entered the case as a friend of the court concerned about what it sees as the broad definition of blight. "Under such broad criteria there is no parcel of land in New Jersey that is safe from such pursuit,'' Chen argued.

The Public Advocate is currently involved in two other eminent domain cases that are moving through the state courts. The other cases involve property owners in Long Branch and Lodi. In addition, the advocate is working with legislators to craft a reform law that would prevent what it sees as abuses of eminent domain and protect homeowners and businesses.

Newark NJ Star-Ledger: http://blog.nj.com/ledgerupdates