Almost a year after outcry over the U.S. Supreme Court decision upholding public condemnation for private development, the Legislature approved a bill Monday opponents said would expand the use of eminent domain.
Under the bill, municipal governments could unilaterally clean up some sites deemed condemned and bill the owner during condemnation proceedings.
When Gov. Richard Codey will sign the measure was unclear. Opponents of the measure said it would allow communities to strong-arm property owners.
"They can ransom them," said Jeff Tittel, executive director of the New Jersey Sierra Club. "They now can say that if you don't sell us your property or give it to us, we'll choose the most expensive and complicated clean up plan and then bill you for it."
Eminent domain has been a hot-button issue since the case of Kelo v. City of New London, in which the court ruled the Connecticut community was within bounds in using the condemnation process for economic development. Under the bill, local governments and the state Department of Environmental Protection could take charge of the clean ups when four years or more have passed following a government designation as a contaminated site.
The DEP would be authorized to waive all fees as it sees fit, spurring some to contend it will lead to abuse and as a tool to leverage land from private owners.
"At the time when towns are demanding an end to abusing people's property rights through eminent domain this expands that abuse," said David Pringle, campaign director for the New Jersey Environmental Federation. "Even if it is not intentional you'd have to be superb in some future case not to use this to extort owners."
Sen. Stephen Sweeney, D-3 of West Deptford, said he initially opposed the measure because he worried about potential abuses. Sweeney was prompted to change his vote when the bill was amended to require owners to not clean up contaminated sites for four years after government initiates proceedings against them.
Four years is "plenty of time," Sweeney said. "I opposed this at first because towns could do what they want ... This is not a bad bill."
Early in the day, the bill appeared stalled when lawmakers deadlocked in the Senate. By Monday evening that logjam was cleared and the bill passed decisively in the Assembly and in the Senate. Long an established practice in New Jersey, eminent domain traditionally involved annexing land for a park, road or schools provided they meet established criteria.
In the recent past, it has been a crucial part of redevelopment efforts in northern New Jersey communities such as New Brunswick and Jersey City and is proposed in the Cramer Hill section of Camden.
Some lawmakers in Trenton and other state capitals have rushed to propose laws that would restrict the ability of local and state governments to condemn private property to turn over to private development firms.
In the Garden State, the main proposal is Republican legislation requiring governments to meet greater burdens of what use would constitute a greater public good before taking private property. Lawmakers in New York have also introduced plans to require public entities to pay 150 percent of fair market value for property.
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