Public advocate urges eminent domain changes: Cherry Hill NJ Courier-Post, 5/8/07

By Michael Rispoli

The battle over whether reforms need to be made to eminent domain - when the government seizes private land for redevelopment - continued Monday, as the state's public advocate appeared before the Senate budget committee calling for major changes.

Government can take land it deems to be blighted - defined under current law as stagnant or not fully productive - in favor of private redevelopment. Opponents say it's far too easy for the government to take land without much review. Landowners who want to fight eminent domain proceedings must show evidence against such designation.

Public Advocate Ronald K. Chen said the burden of proof should be flipped - that municipalities should have to present evidence to designate land for acquisition. He's championing a much stricter definition to "curtail abuses of power."

"My feeling is that if that evidence is there and the area is blighted, this really should not be much of a burden on the municipality at all," Chen said. "I don't agree with the proposition that land is blighted simply because the state believes it can be put to a more beneficial, productive use. That seems to me too broad a test which could be used to declare blighted virtually all land of the state."

Senate Minority Leader Leonard Lance, R-Clinton Township, Hunterdon County, agreed with Chen, saying the public is "quite appropriately" concerned about government taking over private property "for reasons unrelated to blight."

But eminent domain has been beneficial to urban communities where the redevelopment of land increase revenue in the area, said Senate Majority Leader Bernard F. Kenny, D-Hoboken, the budget committee chairman.

Kenny said a change in the burden of proof would "prevent development, and the courts would end up deciding in every instance what is a blighted property and what is not."

Assemblyman John Burzichelli, D-Paulsboro, sponsor of the Assembly bill, said that despite the debate over language he is confident a compromise would be reached soon. He expects the bill to be approved by both houses of the Legislature by the fall.

Cherry Hill NJ Courier-Post: http://www.courierpostonline.com