9/02/2006

Eminent domain appeal is fight for property rights: Asbury Park NJ Press, 8/30/06

By Jeff Rowes

In September 1943, Joseph Torrisi, a young airman in the Army Air Corps, came home on leave to Long Branch and fell in love with a beautiful beachfront cottage at 78 Ocean Terrace. He returned to duty in Europe but never came home again, dying in fierce combat in defense of our freedom. Not long after, his stricken father bought 78 Ocean Terrace as a tribute to his son's heroism and his dream for the family.

More than 60 years later, Torrisi's younger sister, Rose LaRosa, now an 80-year-old widow, still lives there.

But not for long, if Long Branch has its way. The city is using its power of eminent domain to seize LaRosa's entire neighborhood (called MTOTSA for Marine Terrace, Ocean Terrace, Seaview Avenue) and turn it over to private developers so they can make millions building upscale condominiums for the wealthy.

Long Branch justifies this outrageous land-grab by claiming that MTOTSA is "blighted," pointing to trivial cosmetic defects like cracks in masonry. But the city's absurd definition of blight reveals that these condemnations are not about blight at all.

Instead, they are about the political and financial ambitions of those who stand to gain from using government power to take away property that rightly belongs to someone else. The city is simply replacing modest homes with fancier ones, and working-class families and retirees with trendy professionals.

It is no surprise that this case pits people of modest means against deep-pocketed developers like Matzel & Mumford, a subsidiary of K. Hovnanian, one of the largest property developers in the country. Just last summer, the U.S. Supreme Court, in a narrow 5-4 decision in the justly reviled Kelo v. City of New London case, ruled that the government may give your home to someone else as long as there is a vague hope that increased taxes and jobs will follow.

In her pointed dissent, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor explained who wins and who loses when eminent domain is used for private profit: "The beneficiaries are likely to be those citizens with disproportionate influence and power in the political process, including large corporations and development firms." As for the victims — people like LaRosa — "the government now has license to transfer property from those with fewer resources to those with more."

The scandalous demise of property rights in our nation's highest courts has transformed most lower courts into government rubber stamps. In June, the Superior Court in Freehold approved the "blight" condemnation of MTOTSA without even letting the homeowners present evidence that their homes are not blighted. Unless the New Jersey courts of appeal reverse this travesty, property ownership will be meaningless and every home will be vulnerable to condemnation on behalf of the rich.

The recent re-election of Long Branch Mayor Adam Schneider, the biggest cheerleader for destroying MTOTSA, is irrelevant because politics cannot trump basic constitutional protections. The terrible predicament the MTOTSA residents face is what the framers of the U.S. and New Jersey constitutions had in mind in writing those great charters: unprincipled government officials, acting in concert with powerful financial interests, do something unjust to an isolated few while the majority does nothing or, worse yet, approves.

The framers understood that freedom means nothing unless it means that there are some things that no government can do. Just as the U.S. and New Jersey constitutions forbid searching your home without a warrant, so, too, do they forbid taking it simply to give it to someone else. The home has a place of privilege among our fundamental rights because the home is, as Abraham Lincoln put it, the "fruit of labor," meaning it is the repository of our efforts, symbolic of our dreams, and where we find solace from the turmoil of the world.

Joseph Torrisi did not give his life in the struggle for liberty so unscrupulous Long Branch officials could give his little sister's cherished home to billionaire private developers. Today, the Institute for Justice joined LaRosa, her MTOTSA neighbors and their attorney Peter Wegener to appeal the trial court decision. This fight will determine not only the fate of the MTOTSA neighborhood, but the meaning and vitality of property rights across New Jersey.


Asbury Park NJ Press: www.app.com

Jeff Rowes is a lawyer with the Institute for Justice, which represents the MTOTSA homeowners www.ij.org