In early spring, the United States Supreme Court term of 2005 will hear a case based on the merits of eminent domain.
Kelo vs. City of New London is a case based on the usage of eminent domain for municipal redevelopment. Haddon Township residents along Area A of the current redevelopment plan on Haddon Avenue are being threatened by eminent domain.
As a result, this case could be among the closest-watched of the Supreme Court's 2004-05 session.
The Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution allows municipal governments to appropriate private land for public use without an owner's consent if it pays "just compensation."
The scope of the term "public use" has been expanded to incorporate economic development and will be further redefined when the high court examines the Connecticut case next spring.
This controversial use of land has been spreading through the Garden State at an infectious pace.
"Part of the problem is that municipalities are defining public use as more tax revenue and getting better ratables. Who does that help? The politicians who enact the redevelopment projects, not the residents who are losing their house with nowhere to go," said deputy director Douglas Gershuny of the South Jersey Legal Services (SJLS) group.
Gershuny noted the people who get hurt the most by eminent domain are senior citizens.
"Older people with fixed incomes have paid off their mortgage and can't afford to take on another one. Folks get $40,000 to $50,000 for their house and then have to buy a new house at $160,000 on a limited income. There's something very wrong with this and it shouldn't be viewed as an acceptable practice."
SJLS has filed suits over redevelopment against both Camden City's Cramer Hill neighborhood and Mount Holly Gardens, which houses about 300 families. The SJLS has also filed an amicus brief on Kelo's behalf.
"This case was taken by the court because it's something that needs to be addressed and hasn't been touched in more than 50 years," said Gershuny.
On the national level, the U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to hear the arguments of Susette Kelo, a New London, Conn., homeowner who is challenging her municipal leader's attempt to use eminent domain to sell her home. Her house is being taken to make way for new development along the Thames River.
In their appeal, the homeowners say they "seek to stop the use of eminent domain to take away their most sacred and important of possessions: their homes." Together, the seven holdout property owners possess 15 parcels. The neighborhood that Kelo still lives in was originally 115 parcels, a mix of homes and small businesses.
According to the Institute for Justice - a Libertarian law firm working on behalf of the public interest that petitioned the Supreme Court in the Kelo case - local governments across the country are abusing the use of eminent-domain law to transfer property to developers in order to generate more tax revenue.
An Institute for Justice report published last year said that nationwide, between 1997 and 2002, governments took or threatened to take more than 10,000 properties to support economic development projects.
Commissioner Kathy Hogan of Haddon Township has railed against eminent domain and its use as a tool for municipalities to transfer private property.
"This goes against the core values of our private property rights as an American citizen. These rights come from a sacred tradition of English common law that has the government protect and preserve the rights and property of their citizens," said Hogan.
She quoted Noam Chomski's book Hegemony or Survival: American Quest for Global Dominance. "Chomski addresses a severe democratic deficiency with current decisions made by our national government. Here in the case of eminent domain Haddon Township has made a severe departure from the same democratic principles."
She said that everyone knows something needs to be done with the Dy-Dee site, but the project needs to involve the community on the issue and project needs to be right for the Westmont neighborhood.
"If you take a look at South Bound Brook and their Mayor Jo-Anne Schubert, she maintained the importance of involving the community and taking the proper steps to get a redevelopment project into the town that works. They didn't need to use eminent domain and destroy neighborhoods to get a great project into town," said Hogan.
The Camden County Improvement Authority (CCIA) assists and helps municipalities in Camden County work on redevelopment tracts. Ed Fox is the director for Smart Growth of the CCIA and said redevelopment projects do not necessarily need to use eminent domain.
"We help the townships implement their goal in a project like the one in Clementon along the White Horse Pike. We helped a town of about 6,000 people develop a large plot of land that doesn't require the use of eminent domain," said Fox. The CCIA was involved in assisting Haddon Township with the redevelopment and sale of the Westmont Theater.
When the Supreme Court reconvenes next year a number of Haddon Township residents and municipal employees will be watching intently when Kelo vs. City of New London comes to the bench. A number of residents in the redevelopment zone who have their homes marked for condemnation hope definitive criteria for eminent domain will be the outcome.
"A new precedent for public use needs to be laid out by the court, but will have to see what happens," said SJLS Gershuny.
The Haddon Herald: www.haddonherald.com