Activist homeowner ready to negotiate: Asbury Park NJ Press, 12/16/07

Eminent domain foe in Long Branch

By Carol Gorga Williams

A key member of a citizens' group lobbying to stay in their ocean-view homes here is dangling an olive branch.

Lori Ann Vendetti - moved by the holiday season, concerned over the impact the long fight is having on her own mother and dealing with grief following the death of a beloved member of their tightknit group - said she is tired and would like to find a way to end the fight.

Vendetti is a member of the Marine Terrace, Ocean Terrace, Seaview Avenue Alliance [MTOTSA], the group of residents that many credit with turning the city's reputation for successful oceanfront redevelopment into an examination of the morality behind the use of eminent domain.

The group lost its right to keep the city's redevelopment from its enclave in trial court; attracted the help of the Institute for Justice, a national public interest law firm taking the case for free; and now is waiting for a date in appellate court.

Since the group began its fight in 2003, it has attracted widespread media attention and has helped tarnish the image of longtime Mayor Adam Schneider, who by his own admission has become the poster child for the national movement against eminent domain abuse.

Schneider says the neighborhood needs to be taken to make way for the second phase of Beachfront North, a redevelopment project that could bring another 185 high-priced homes into the area. But opponents say the MTOTSA enclave is one of the last surviving Shore cottage communities, and that many of its residents did not learn about the potential for redevelopment until it was too late to stop the bulldozers.

At Tuesday's City Council meeting, Vendetti came forward and said maybe it is time to find a way for everyone to get along. She would like to stay in her seasonal home in the enclave, her parents would like to stay in their year-round one, and other residents feel the same way.

But maybe there is a way for the developer to go forward with some plan, even if it is not the original one, Vendetti said, suggesting a limited compromise. This is the first time a MTOTSA member has publicly considered settlement, which Schneider tried to pursue last year, only to be accused of politicking in the wake of an upcoming municipal election. (Schneider won re-election.)

"Maybe one of you can look into your hearts and see how we can stop this," Vendetti told the mayor and council Tuesday.

Vendetti believes market forces ultimately will see the oceanfront redevelopment to fruition, but she also noted the market clearly is changing and perhaps there is no longer such a demand for high-density housing. She still holds on to the concept that the developer, Applied Development of Hoboken, can make a tidy profit by building on the property of willing sellers without forcing others from their homes.

Currently, Applied owns nearly half the 38 properties in the community.

The concept she is referring to is known as "infill" by some, even though Schneider has a different definition. He believes "infill," as it was discussed for Beachfront North, always meant taking all the homes, and just building smaller projects than Applied initially proposed.

Vendetti also appealed to the council to consider an ordinance to stop the use of eminent domain in the city. "I think this is the time," she said.

Councilman Brian A. Unger said he was working on some form of legislation, but acknowledged getting another council member to second his motion would be difficult. "I'm sorry it has taken so long," said Unger, adding he is having trouble finding a lawyer in Monmouth County to review his work because so many make their living on condemnation cases. "I"d like to do something credible that has some" teeth, he said.

The other four council members have said that while they do not like the use of eminent domain, it is a necessary tool for urban areas that need to assemble properties for large redevelopment projects.

"We've been stagnant for three or four years," said Vendetti. "It is not going to end," she said, noting each side faces potentially years of further legal appeals.

"I think it is time to look at other alternatives where we can stay and other people can build, and let's get on with our lives," Vendetti said.

Schneider said he did not respond Tuesday to her appeal because he did not want to infringe on her time at the microphone. (The city enforces a strict five-minute rule for public comments, and that includes any give-and-take with officials.)

But he expressed a willingness to try to find a solution to the emotional issue. And just as Vendetti said any compromise would have to include the right to stay for those who wish it, Schneider said any settlement would have to include the provision to build more than on just isolated lots.

In the earlier settlement meeting, Schneider offered a plan that would relocate the homes of long-time, full-time MTOTSA residents to another location within the same area. By grouping them together, more property for development would become available.

Schneider said the city has never gotten a response to some of the ideas it put on the table at that meeting.

"If they want to sit down and talk about it, let's talk," Schneider said later in the week. "You want to talk about it in a public meeting, I'll talk; you want to talk about it in a private meeting, I'll do that. With attorneys there or without, I'm willing."

Contacted later in the week to see if she still felt the same way, Vendetti said she did. A number of MTOTSA residents who were elderly have passed away since the dispute began, the most recent of whom was Anna DeFaria, and Vendetti said she is having trouble just looking at DeFaria's empty, dark cottage.

"It's been long enough," said Vendetti of the dispute. "It's in litigation but that doesn't mean we can't work something out. . . . It is not right to have this hanging over their heads," she said of the community's elderly residents.

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