10/07/2007

No welcome mat for eminent domain here: Gloucester County NJ Times, 10/4/07

By Trish G. Graber

With state legislation stalled to reform eminent domain, a small Gloucester County borough is looking to join the handful of municipalities assuring its residents their homes are safe from the taking at least for now.

In Swedesboro, the council recently introduced an ordinance to prohibit the governing body from taking occupied homes through eminent domain for private redevelopment.

"We have people that have lived here for generations," said Councilman Sam Casella, who proposed the ordinance in the less than 1-square-mile town. "You have to think about 10, 15, 20 years down the road."

For the borough, the move is largely symbolic.

Officials in the 2,000 person municipality, with just over 600 homes, are working to revitalize their small downtown on Kings Highway spotted with shops and restaurants, as well as two other redevelopment areas.

Swedesboro Mayor Tom Fromm said the borough never intended to take homes through eminent domain, but to use the redevelopment designations as tools to aid businesses with zoning flexibility and other incentives.

"It's not going to happen here as long as we have something to say about it," Fromm said. "If it makes everybody more comfortable that we have this on the record, then so be it."

If passed, Swedesboro would join at least five towns in New Jersey that moved to establish their own restrictions to eminent domain following the Kelo v. the City of New London (Connecticut) Supreme Court decision which allowed government to take property for private use. The ruling expanded the use of eminent domain, traditionally used to clear the way for constructing public projects like schools, hospitals and roads.

Forty-two states have increased protections since the 2005 landmark decision.

"New Jersey is not one of them, and unfortunately, New Jersey is one of the biggest abusers," said Steven Anderson, director of the Arlington, Va.-based Institute for Justice's Castle Coalition, an advocacy group which opposes eminent domain.

"What this town is trying to do is a good start but it is incomplete protection," Anderson added. "People that own businesses are at risk, churches."

According to the New Jersey League of Municipalities (NJLM), at least five towns have drafted ordinances to restrict the use of eminent domain and others have looked at banning it altogether.

NJLM Executive Director Bill Dressel said while the League recognizes eminent domain as an important redevelopment tool in the most densely populated state in the nation, towns have the final say as to whether they should use it.

"That's what local government is about: Making the hard nut decisions," he said.

Like any law, even if passed the measure is not guaranteed to be permanent.

"The council can repeal an ordinance just like it can pass an ordinance," said Deborah Cole, an attorney with the New Jersey State League of Municipalities.

A state measure that would make the eminent domain process more transparent and provide greater notice and compensation has passed the Assembly but remains stalled in the state Senate.

Assemblyman John Burzichelli, D-Gloucester, the bill sponsor, said he expects the measure to move when the legislature reconvenes after the November elections.

Swedesboro expects to hold a public hearing on its measure Oct. 15.


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