Public Advocate: Legal muscle needed to stop land-taking abuses

Public Advocate: Legal muscle needed to stop land-taking abuses

Tuesday, May 29, 2007 ASSOCIATED PRESS

Public Advocate's report on the use of eminent domain

TRENTON, N.J. -- State laws that allow governments to take land for private redevelopment are being misused and need to be reformed to protect private property owners, the public advocate said in a report released Tuesday.

Public Advocate Ronald L. Chen urged the Legislature in his report to stem the abuses that violate private property owners' rights by amending the state's overly broad redevelopment laws.

"New Jersey's laws governing the use of eminent domain for private redevelopment are written in a way that leads to abuse," Chen said in the report. "When the government misuses this important redevelopment tool, people can lose their homes without real evidence that their neighborhood is blighted, without adequate notice or hearings, and without fair compensation."

Under eminent domain, governments have the power to seize private property to create public projects such as schools or to promote revitalization through private economic redevelopment.

Chen's report does not address the use of eminent domain for public projects.

There have been efforts to restrict the use of eminent domain after the U.S. Supreme Court in 2005 gave wide latitude to local governments wanting to seize homes to make way for a commercial use. More than half the states have enacted reforms, according to federal data, but so far nothing has become law in New Jersey.

A poll taken by Fairleigh Dickinson University PublicMind in November showed that most New Jersey voters disapproved of the ability of governments to take land via eminent domain.

In the poll, voters were asked to consider four scenarios under which local and state governments might seize private property; none was supported by a majority.

The plan that drew the fewest objections would have "dilapidated properties" replaced by better housing and shops. Only two in seven voters said it was acceptable to raze houses and shops for a new school, while one in six said it was OK for active farmland to be taken to build a new school or ball field. Nine in 10 voters said it was not acceptable to take middle-class housing and replace it with "upscale condos and shops."

Tuesday's report was Chen's second on eminent domain abuses. Last year his office called for greater protections for tenants and property owners.

Asked Tuesday what changes he hoped the reports would spur, Chen said, "I'm very optimistic that the Legislature will enact reforms that will address the issues and potential for abuses we've highlighted in this report."

For the most recent report, the Public Advocate's Office looked at specific court cases involving misuses of eminent domain, concluding that the system was rife with abuse. For example:

In Passaic, one property owner lost a lot without ever knowing the town had condemned and sold the land to another private party. He found out about the sale only when he tried to pay his property taxes.

In Long Branch, the city offered one homeowner about $180,000 for a five bedroom beachfront home that had been condemned. A jury later awarded the homeowner $500,000 for the home.

In Edison, a court ruled that local officials had scant evidence backing up their blight designation in one neighborhood: a pothole, a few cracks and a gutter that needed cleaning.

The Public Advocate's Office has filed friend of the court briefs in several cases, but Chen said it's difficult to gauge the prevalence of eminent domain abuse since many victims cannot afford to fight back.

Chen has been working with the Legislature on three areas of reform: tightening the definition of "blight," the condition that can affect the health and safety of a community; making the process for using eminent domain more fair and open; and requiring compensation at levels that would allow people to stay in their own communities.

The Assembly passed eminent domain reform legislation a year ago. The measure remains stalled in the Senate.

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