Landowners threatened by eminent domain abuse: Cherry Hill NJ Courier-Post, 9/19/07


Some of what is taking place throughout the United States is surprising. Take for example, the legally authorized abuse of eminent domain.

Last week, the Courier-Post reported on problems with plans to build housing on a site previously occupied by the Pennsauken Mart.

The redevelopment project has not been carried out because of changes to the initial plan and the many setbacks in the latest vision for the site.

As a result, a lawsuit has been filed and its ensuing complications seem to indicate the project will come to a screeching halt.

What is sad and worrisome is this proposed redevelopment project caused the displacement of 100 small-business owners who operated at the Pennsauken Mart.

After researching the story of the Pennsauken Mart, one can determine not only the extent of the abuse committed by the financially and politically powerful in Camden County, but also their true purpose and complete disregard for those who are most vulnerable.

The Pennsauken Mart had been around for half a century as one of the most popular business centers in South Jersey. In early 2000, a sudden smear campaign against the Pennsauken Mart was launched - by whom was not clear.

Shortly after, the building's occupants received news that a redevelopment project had been approved for the site, ensuring they would be evicted.

Business owners began a long, legal battle and mounted protests, which intensified but, ultimately, brought no positive results. They were in despair and confused, finding all roads were closed to them.

Once again, the politicians who, during their election campaigns, promised to defend their constituents, abandoned them to side with the powerful business and public officials in the county.

By the end of 2005, all business owners, many of whom had shops in the Pennsauken Mart for 30 years to 50 years, had to leave.

These victims of an eminent domain ruling have been destroyed on behalf of a redevelopment plan, which for all purposes does not exist. All the urgency to evict these business owners from the site has so far resulted in a vacant plot of land.

Doubtlessly, the land is very valuable and the promise of money to be made is the fuel for this type of violation.

Eminent domain is a very old legal power with fair and healthy origins. It was created to guarantee common welfare to be above private interests.

In the United States, the fair application of eminent domain is so important the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution requires that just compensation is paid and that the property is taken for public use.

Public use may include military facilities, roads, railroads and government buildings.

Old are the battles of those who see eminent domain as the tool to take valuable land and thus further their riches.

Set back
However, real legal support was gained in 2005 with a decision in Kelo v. New London, Conn.

The Supreme Court decided the transfer of land from a private owner to another was constitutional as long as financial development plans were advanced.

Since then, small-property owners have suffered many tragedies by having to hand their houses, small businesses or farms to powerful developers.

A recent article by the Spanish news agency EFE found that 15 months after the Kelo decision, more than 6,000 small properties have been subject to eminent domain for private development programs.

With this kind of court decision, eminent domain poses a real danger to the once revered relationship between U.S. property owners and their private property.

Certainly, private property continues to be sacred for those with financial and political muscle, but not so for the powerless who can be stripped from their few and hard-earned possessions.

Those of us who are poor must, from now on, do what we can to get our dream house in the worst possible place so that it does not catch attention from those who advance financial development plans.

Property owners in areas that look promising are already in danger. They only need one of these developers to drive by, find the site to their liking and begin forming their plans.

Surely, the eminent domain process would conclude by favoring the developer who usually has complete support from legislators, politicians and other government officers.

This application of eminent domain begins to seriously erode two fundamental pillars of American society: private property and equality under the law.

Fight back
A victim of the abuse of eminent domain can hardly escape calls for justice and public protests. The Cramer Hill neighborhood in Camden was an exception.

The chosen victims are safe for now because they mounted an unprecedented fight and because the council treated the issue with the machine's usual arrogance.

This arrogance was cause for the council to make a few legal errors when the development plan was approved.

For this reason, lawyers representing Cramer Hill residents were able to halt redevelopment plans for the neighborhood.

However, the political machine remained intact in the last elections, and it would not be surprising if development plans for this sector are revived.

The Pennsauken Mart business Diaspora has followed several paths. Four of the eviction victims have reportedly died. Others cannot be located. But most of the merchants moved their shops into the Grand Market Place in Burlington County.

There is a sense of renewed hope among the merchants. However, the black cloud of eminent domain will always hang over their heads.

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