Stealing home: Hackensack NJ Record, 6/1/07


NEW JERSEY'S vague laws on government taking of property put ordinary homeowners and small businesses at risk. The Legislature needs to protect property owners by reforming eminent domain laws. So far, it has failed.

The Assembly passed a reform bill last year. The measure has stalled in the Senate.

Some opponents say eminent domain abuse is not really a problem. Municipalities act fairly when condemning homes and businesses, they say.

But anyone who has watched Lodi's treatment of residents of two Route 46 trailer parks knows better. The borough is fighting to kick out the 200 people who live in the Costa and Brown's trailer courts. It is trying to condemn these generally well-maintained properties on a flimsy premise that they are "blighted." It wants to convert the site into an upscale condo development - all for the sake of increasing borough tax revenues.

Lodi is just one example. A report this week by state Public Advocate Ronald Chen gives other instances of eminent domain abuse around the state. It shows municipalities, like Lodi, using designations of "blight" to take private homes and businesses. It shows governments failing to give property owners a chance to contest condemnation of their property, such as the city of Passaic's treatment of Charlie Shennett.

Shennett had no idea his home had been condemned until, in 2005, he inquired why he had not received a tax bill. The city condemned the home that had been in his family for 80 years without notifying him. It had transferred the property to a company owned by a former city councilman.

The transfer of the property to a political insider carried the appearance of a potential conflict of interest. But in eminent domain cases, that's not so unusual. Chen's report details another case, in Long Branch, where municipal officials involved in condemning property appeared to stand to personally benefit from the deal. As the report notes, such potential conflicts of interest undermine public confidence in all government condemnations of property.

Sometimes, eminent domain is the right thing to do. Homes and businesses sometimes have to give way for schools, roads and other important public projects. Sometimes, properties truly are blighted and detrimental to public health; government needs to declare eminent domain to bring in new, private development.

But condemning property for private development should be rare. And it should be fair.

Municipalities should be barred from declaring properties "blighted" merely because of faded paint or overgrown weeds. They should be required to give owners adequate notice and a fair chance to contest the property taking. They should also have to pay fair compensation for displaced owners to start over somewhere else.

The Assembly bill, co-sponsored by Robert Gordon, D-Fair Lawn, would help ensure fairness. The Senate should pass an identical measure. It should reject a bill sponsored by Ronald Rice, D-Newark, that would fail to give property owners needed protections.

Many municipalities do the right thing when condemning property. Some do not. And it's ordinary people who get hurt.

Hackensack NJ Record: http://www.northjersey.com