A "jaw-dropping" case in Passaic and a controversial proposal to seize two trailer parks in Lodi were cited by the state's public advocate Tuesday as classic examples of governmental abuse of eminent domain.
"People can lose their homes without real evidence that their neighborhood is blighted, without adequate notice or hearings and without fair compensation," Ronald K. Chen - who first issued a statewide eminent domain analysis last May - declared in his 31-page follow-up report.
A call for change
Public Advocate Ronald K. Chen said in a report Tuesday that three urgent changes are needed in New Jersey's eminent domain law:
- Tightening the definition of "blighted area" to prevent what Chen called "bogus blight" designations.
- Making the eminent domain process more open and transparent.
- Requiring more realistic levels of compensation to allow people to remain in their communities.
Chen cited Passaic's 2004 issuance of a default judgment enabling it to take Charles Shennett's Summer Street property - unbeknown to Shennett, because the condemnation notice was not handed over in person, as required. Also, the address on the mailings was incomplete. An appellate court voided the condemnation in February, but the case remains in litigation.
"They clearly knew what his address was, because they had sent his tax bills there every year," said Chen, who is seeking enhanced notification rules for targets of eminent domain. "It's mystifying as to why they couldn't give him notice of the taking of his land. It's jaw-dropping."
Lodi trailer park residents Kendall Kardt - president of the Save Our Homes coalition - and Judy Kuchenmeister were featured in separate vignettes within Chen's report, detailing what he called "startling injustices."
The borough declared the trailer parks to be "in need of redevelopment" in 2003. To replace them, the borough proposed a project that supporters said would generate 10 times the tax revenue.
Kardt, a musician, told the Public Advocate's Office he found the idea of displacing 240 residents "disgusting."
"This isn't just about trying to make your town look like a picture on the postcard," Kardt said. "This is about people's lives. The people who live here are mechanics, janitors. They do something useful."
Kuchenmeister, a resident of Brown's Mobile Home Park for more than 30 years, said she feels like she's always "walking on eggshells" because of the ongoing litigation. A trial court in September 2005 dismissed the recommendations of the Lodi Planning Board, but the town appealed. The Public Advocate's Office sided with the residents before an appellate panel in Hackensack this year.
"Sometimes, it feels like this will never be over," Kuchenmeister said in the report. "It's the trailer park today - your house tomorrow."
Harvey Pearlman, Shennett's attorney, said that a trial court last week refused to turn the Passaic property back to Shennett - leaving its ownership in dispute. It was bought by a business owned by former City Councilman Wayne Alston for $60,000 - or four times what Shennett was offered for it in 2004. A two-story house was built on the property in 2005.
"I'm not surprised the public advocate picked that particular case, because of how outrageous it was," Pearlman said. "This is not the way the system is supposed to work."
Chen urged the state Senate to pass a version of a bill sponsored by Assemblyman John Burzichelli, D-Gloucester, that passed in the Assembly last year. The bill would clarify the definition of "blighted" in designating areas for redevelopment, Chen said.
"The current law's vague and broad definition ... could apply to virtually any property in New Jersey," Chen wrote.
That bill - endorsed by the state League of Municipalities and by Governor Corzine - also would ensure that homeowners and business owners are kept informed of the process and would mandate fairer levels of compensation for those displaced, Chen said.
Sen. Ronald Rice, D-Essex, also is sponsoring an eminent domain bill. But Chen said he wants the bill to be beefed up to match Burzichelli's version.
State Senate President Richard J. Codey, another Essex Democrat, said he had not yet read Chen's report. He said sarcastically that it was "interesting" that the report was released directly to the media.
"It's easy to pick out some abuses of eminent domain that clearly did occur, and we've got to stop those," Codey said. "But mayors also are concerned that this power still can be used to help them rebuild cities the way Jersey City or New Brunswick were rebuilt. By Jan. 1, we'll reach a compromise on a bill that does away with the abuses, while at the same time allowing [eminent domain] to be used as an effective tool for those that desire to revitalize."
Assemblyman Kevin O'Toole, R-Cedar Grove, said he supports the proposal by state Sen. Peter Inverso, R-Mercer, to amend the state Constitution to allow eminent domain "for essential public purposes only," as opposed to private development.
Other cases cited by Chen in the report:
- An effort to condemn three dozen modest beachfront homes in Long Branch.
- Paulsboro's attempt to develop on 63 acres of wetlands.
- Perth Amboy's inclusion of a light manufacturing building in a blighted footprint.
- Bloomfield's use of the same attorney to represent the township, the Zoning Board and the Planning Board.
- An attempt in Edison to condemn a school bus property for what a court ruled was "purely for private use."