Usually when [new Jersey] Public Advocate Ronald K. Chen speaks out about the evils of eminent domain, he does so surrounded by a crowd of people who say they have been done wrong by the process.
But Wednesday at the Atlantic City Convention Center, he confronted a completely different animal: as a guest of the New Jersey State League of Municipalities, he was speaking — by and large — to government officials who rely on the controversial power to pursue public improvement projects.
Chen was joined by M. James Maley Jr., mayor of Collingswood, Camden County; Sen. Ronald L. Rice, D-Essex; Assemblyman John Burzichelli, D-Gloucester, and Edward J. McManimon, special counsel to the league, for a panel discussion on "Economic Development and Eminent Domain."
Earlier in the day, Chen had joined Long Branch City Attorney James G. Aaron and lawyer Peter H. Wegener, who represents clients in the Marine Terrace, Ocean Terrace, Seaview Avenue area of Long Branch who are appealing a June 22 decision by Superior Court Judge Lawrence M. Lawson that upheld the right of the city to use eminent domain to acquire MTOTSA properties for the redevelopment of Beachfront North Phase II.
Chen has filed documents in support of MTOTSA in its appeal and on Wednesday, the advocate announced he was doing the same for 200 or so trailer park residents in Lodi who face eviction under the power of eminent domain so officials in that Bergen County municipality can locate a strip mall and senior development in its place.
In both discussions, Long Branch, which some have argued has become the "poster child" for eminent domain abuse, was not far from people's minds and tongues.
Rice, who is chairman of the Senate Community and Urban Affairs Committee, and Burzichelli, who is chairman of the Assembly Commerce and Economic Development Committee, both have eminent domain reform measures in their respective houses. Rice said he is prepared to do some compromising so the two can come up with a unified bill and expects to see some action on his measure within 30 days.
"I don't like the Long Branch situation," said Rice, noting people are still waiting for the project to go forward years after it was approved.
Chen's office prepared a report on eminent domain in May which concluded the power was necessary but needed substantial revisions to make it more fair to property owners.
"Eminent domain, at times, is a necessary tool, not one we look at with affection," said Chen, noting New Jersey was substantially different from the wide-open space of South Dakota, where the use of eminent domain for economic development was recently outlawed.
"It would be counter to the public interest to limit it completely," said Chen.
Chen said eminent domain should be permitted only if the area is blighted and there are serious problems with the acceptable definition of blight, he said. Some definitions are so "malleable and permeable, they can be contracted to reach all sorts of results."
He used the example of an "underutilized" property as a definition that was too imprecise to be used. He said the definition of "underutilized, which, depending on one's enthusiasm, could be any land, up to and including Drumthwacket as I have mentioned, upon occasion, to the current inhabitant."
Drumthwacket is the official governor's residence and it was Gov. Corzine who asked Chen to look at eminent domain as one of the first duties of the newly resurrected Office of the Public Advocate.
Another major point centered on compensation for property owners. Right now, homeowners often have to settle for "fair market value" but Chen hopes "replacement value" that would fully fund a comparable home nearby could be used.
"I think we all know these days that fair market value is not always fair," said Chen, noting homeowners need to be made "whole" by the eminent domain process, not priced out of the market.
Dick Tighe, a councilman in Morristown, urged officials to proceed slowly with eminent domain reform.
"This law has worked for years," Tighe said. "It has worked with eminent fairness. You really can't screw this law up too much because it has been working."
James Vassanella, a Franklin Township Council member in Somerset County, asked the legislators if they were prepared to consider pay-to-play and campaign financing reform as part of the eminent domain issue. He said, "without a dramatic change in pay-to-play and campaign finance law," eminent domain abuse would likely continue.
Only Rice responded to his question and he said the issue of pay-to-play reform would not be part of eminent domain reform because it was being addressed by other legislation.
"It is wonderful to say pay-to-play," Rice said. "It is wonderful to say a lot of things . . . We're doing pay-to-play in New Jersey. We can never seem to do enough."
Rice said he would not cave in to special interest groups on this.
"I can only put so much in one bill," he said. "It is not an area I'm looking to address."
Asbury Park NJ Press: www.app.com