7/30/2007

Salon joins county debate on eminent domain: Gloucester County NJ Times, 7/8/07

By Stephanie Brown

Growing up, Jennifer Stachiotti had one dream.

"I always wanted to own a hair salon ever since I was a little girl," said the Glassboro native.

But Stachiotti's path to her dream intersects the path of a man who says he had his own dream, but now contends that dream has turned nightmarish because of eminent domain.

It started for Stachiotti when, after working as a hair stylist for 15 years, the wife and mother of two decided to take a risk and open her own salon.

Looking for a location, she immediately turned to her hometown of Glassboro.

"I wanted to be in the heart of this town," said Stachiotti, whose parents used to own a light fixture shop on East High Street.

Two years ago, she opened Turning Heads Salon and Spa, located at 213 W. High St.

"I walked in here and I just knew this was the place for me," said Stachiotti, who signed two, three-year leases with the property's owner, Suleiman Arifi.

Now it seems that her dream may come to fruition much sooner than she anticipated.

The borough plans to sell her the West High Street property, which houses the storefront and two apartments, for about $225,000.

The borough acquired the property through eminent domain, according to court documents dated March 13.

Arifi, 77, bought the property in 1991 and has lived on-site for the past 10 years.

Having escaped communist Yugoslavia more than 40 years ago, it was Arifi's dream to make it in America.

He never expected his property to be seized and thinks the borough is taking advantage of his age and failing health.

"I live here and I'm making a business here," Arifi said. "How can they do this to me in America?"

The 2005 U.S. Supreme Court's Kelo vs. New London (Conn.) ruling said municipalities can acquire private property through eminent domain as part of "a carefully considered development plan."

Glassboro's authority to acquire the property was enacted five or six years ago when the borough designated Arifi's property as part of the Rowan Boulevard redevelopment area, said James Maley, the borough's economic development attorney.

A building in the redevelopment area can be in fine shape, but still be condemned because it does not "meet the redevelopment criteria," said Maley, who represented Paulsboro in the Gallenthin vs. Paulsboro eminent domain case.

As to why the borough has chosen to pursue Arifi's property in particular Maley said, "That's a policy call."

"My understanding is that, for maintaining it as a use that's consistent with the area, the borough thought it should acquire it," Maley said.

Borough Administrator Joe Brigandi Jr. has said that borough plans for that section of High Street include creating a concentration of service-oriented businesses and that the hair salon would be a perfect fit.

The deteriorating condition of Arifi's property was another reason why the borough pursued it, Maley said.

Arifi has been in violation of numerous construction codes dating back to at least 2002, according to documents obtained by the Times.

Violations range from a "broken toilet seat" and "severe cockroach infestation" in 2002 to "siding is dented" and "roof covering appears deteriorated" in 2006.

Because of the code violations, Arifi was never able to receive the borough's facade grant something Stachiotti said she desperately needs for her business.

"I put my heart and soul into this building and the business," said Stachiotti, who estimated that she has spent $40,000 in renovations. "You can't see that from the outside."

If she buys the property, she'll be able to apply for the grant herself.

She said that investment is a big risk for her fledging business, but she's definitely considering it.

Arifi's property's is not the only one in the Rowan Boulevard redevelopment area that the borough has pursued, but the other property owners were willing to negotiate, according to Maley.

Because Arifi initially refused to communicate with the borough, it moved forward with legal proceedings to condemn the property, he said.

According to Maley, his property is the second one in the Rowan Boulevard redevelopment area to be condemned. The Academy Street School was acquired by the borough through eminent domain in 2004, he said.

The borough is trying to resolve the value of the property with Arifi.

It recently offered him a borough-owned property on Wilmer Street in exchange for his West High Street property and about $50,000.

But Arifi says the duplex, located at 15 Wilmer St., and even the cash is no compensation for his property.

He estimates the borough's offer to be worth about $200,000. A market rate estimate he received from a Century 21 Realtor puts his parcel at around $400,000, he said.

If the property's value cannot be resolved, the value will be determined in Superior Court.


Gloucester County NJ Times: http://www.nj.com/news/gloucester