Lodi's attempt to condemn and close two longstanding mobile home parks - displacing 233 families - is a sad example of how arrogant government officials abuse their right of eminent domain.
A state judge is expected to rule soon on the attempted land grab, which has been challenged by the owners and residents of both the Costa and Brown trailer courts on Route 46.
But it should never have come to this.
Lodi should have dropped its idea of redeveloping the mobile home parks as soon as it saw the owners of those properties had no interest in selling.
Certainly, it should have backed off once it became clear that most of the several hundred low-income seniors and other residents in the mobile homes could not afford any other decent place in this area. Kicking them out of these trailer courts, where some have lived for more than 40 years, would effectively force them out of Lodi and possibly Bergen County.
But Lodi officials have stubbornly persisted in their plan to turn this land over to private developers. Apparently the lure of increased property tax revenues from a proposed senior condo complex has been just too great to resist.
You begin to understand how borough officials rationalize their heartless behavior when you listen to Mayor Gary Paparozzi.
- "They're not really homes," Mr. Paparozzi says.
He says he means that mobile homes, unlike other kinds of homes, can be moved. But he acknowledges he doesn't know if there are other mobile home parks in this area with vacancies. (There aren't.) His callous comment also ignores the fact that many of these residents have lived there for decades, raising children and tending gardens. In what way are their residences not homes?
- "They've outlived their usefulness," the mayor says of the trailer courts.
Outlived their usefulness to whom? Certainly not to the people in North Jersey who need affordable housing such as these trailer parks offer. Rent for the cement pads under the mobile homes runs about $400 to $500 per month, far cheaper than typical apartments.
The mayor complains that Lodi already hosts more than its share of affordable housing compared to other Bergen County towns. But no one's asking the borough to build more low-cost homes. It only needs to try to preserve what exists.
- "It is potentially dangerous," the mayor says.
The mobile homes have above-ground propane tanks for fuel, which Mr. Paparozzi says are a fire hazard. He also says there have been problems with trash accumulating in an adjacent brook, attracting rodents into nearby neighborhoods.
These are lame arguments. Lodi has never issued citations against either trailer park. If the borough has valid concerns about safety or property upkeep, it should take action to force the owners to make improvements. Until it does that, how can it use such concerns as a basis for condemnation?
Eminent domain is sometimes justified, such as for building schools, expanding roads or opening new train stations.
But condemnation should always be a last resort of governments, and it should be reserved for clear and compelling public uses. Increasing tax revenues is not enough of a public benefit to justify government taking of private property.
Unfortunately, local governments have been emboldened by the U.S. Supreme Court's mistaken decision this year expanding eminent domain rights. New Jersey legislators need to tighten the state's laws quickly to discourage more towns from following Lodi down this wrong path.
Bergen Record: www.bergen.com