9/13/2005

Eminent Domain in Neptune, N.J. — A vision for West Lake Avenue: New Jersey Eminent Domain Blog, 9/12/05

By William Ward

“I just can’t believe they’re going to go ahead and tear down a building that the township has funded through the whole process. We were told when we bought it, that if we redid it, it would be a blessing and the best thing that ever happened, and then they’re telling us to get lawyers.” – Lester Goldberg, owner of Scrubber Doctor

West Lake Avenue is one section of Neptune Township located off Route 35 which is now threatened by eminent domain. The area is mostly single family residential, some commercial, and overwhelmingly African American. If these eminent domain cases are filed and the right to take is upheld, it will result in the wholesale displacement of an established and vibrant community.

Clara’s Place is one of the businesses threatened. It is a busy restaurant serving breakfast, lunch, and dinner. It’s been there on West Lake Avenue for many years. It is one of those places that is the focal point of a neighborhood. People come in, eat, and catch up on the news of the day.

Betty Gainey lives across the street from Clara’s. Her single family residential house is as neat as a pin with roses growing along a fence in the front yard and lovely gardens in the back. Yet she too may have to leave if the political powers continue their redevelopment efforts and acquisition of properties through eminent domain proceedings.

These buildings are definitely not “blighted” — but some expert hired by Neptune Township has said, and the township has agreed, that they are in an “area in need of redevelopment.”

This is a crooked game. Rob the poor, give the property to the rich, and move the people out! New Jersey, and indeed the United States of America, has to step back from this scenario or it will pay a steep price. The mood on the street is angry, and it’s not just Neptune Township, Asbury Park or Long Branch. A total of 64 municipalities in New Jersey have declared "areas in need of redevelopment" in their towns.

The politicians in Neptune and Long Branch are deaf to the pleas of the homeowners and small businesses. The same day we met with Neptune property owners, members of the New Jersey assembly were posing with Lester Goldberg, the owner of Scrubber Doctor, a janitorial equipment and supply company. Goldberg is now threatened with eminent domain by the township of Neptune.

In January 2004, Goldberg and his wife purchased the building and the property wasn’t in the plan. But it is now. On August 24, Lester and his wife attended a meeting when Neptune officials and architects unveiled their redevelopment plan only to discover that their property would be torn down.

Goldberg invested $200,000 of his own funds in improving his building, a 6000 square foot office-warehouse distribution complex located on six-tenths of an acre on Route 35. The irony is that the township encouraged Mr. Goldberg to make this investment by giving him a UDAC loan, façade loan, façade and landscaping grants, and are now threatening to take the property on behalf of the designated redeveloper, CityWorks West Lake LLC. Goldberg intends to vigorously oppose the acquisition of his property by Neptune Township.

The press statements from Republican Assemblyman Sean Kean and Steven Corodemus as well as Democrats Jim Reilly and Mathhew Doherty are typical of what every politician is currently saying prior to the November elections. They are against using eminent domain to acquire single family, owner occupied residential homes. They miss the big picture. “I don’t believe in every case eminent domain in a residential situation should be banned,” Kean said. “In those areas that are blighted, I think that is a positive thing.” (9/9/05)

It’s not just the residential home owner that is affected; there are numerous tenants who are dislocated, there are many small businesses that are put out of business. The Local Redevelopment Housing Law is being misused. The original Neptune Strategic Revitalization Plan blighted over 1,200 homes, small businesses, and churches covering most of the Midtown, Bradley Park, and Shark River neighborhoods of Neptune Township.

Two months ago, a township-owned building on West Lake Avenue was demolished to jump-start the project. The Asbury Park Press reported that Gail Oliver, president of Midtown Urban Renaissance Corporation (MURC) and a resident of West Lake Avenue, said the demolition ended more than three decades of neglect and complacency. MURC was formed several years ago by residents who partner with CityWorks, the project’s developer. Neighbors United, another group of Neptune citizens, opposes the use of eminent domain by the town.

When the announcement of the original project resulted in massive protest, Neptune Township decided to tackle its redevelopment piecemeal, chipping away at the opposition by including some property owners in coalition with the redeveloper. They further diffuse the opponents to the project by covering it with a veneer of community cooperation and benefit. The benefits flow only to a few, and the majority will be acquired and dislocated.

We’ve gone from “blight” to “area in need of redevelopment” and our courts have said that it is a distinction without a difference.

We further conclude that the terms "blighted area," as used in N.J. Const., Art. VIII, § 3, ¶ 1, and "an area in need of redevelopment," as used in the LRHL, are synonymous. Therefore, the designation of an area in need of redevelopment under the LRHL is the equivalent of a blight designation.



New Jersey Eminent Domain Blog: www.njeminentdomain.com

William Ward is an attorney with Carlin & Ward