Long Branch [NJ] City Attorney James G. Aaron and Peter H. Wegener, the lawyer for property owners in the Marine Terrace, Ocean Terrace, Seaview Avenue area fighting the city's right to take their home by eminent domain, agree — on one thing, at least.
Aaron and Wegener, among the featured speakers during a statewide conference on redevelopment, discussed eminent domain and the lawsuit that has made them adversaries. Numerous property owners have appealed state Superior Court Judge Lawrence M. Lawson's June 22 decision that upheld the city's right to take homes for the second phase of the Beachfront North project.
Sponsors of the seminar, the Urban Land Institute, North Jersey District Council, and Langan Engineering & Environmental Services who coordinated "Urban Core III" at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center, acknowledged the government's power of eminent domain has become a "lightning rod" for controversy.
Nowhere does that seem more true than in Long Branch, which has received national attention for its plans to use eminent domain in the MTOTSA neighborhood.
Aaron and Wegener faced off Thursday for a session called "Eminent Domain: A Live Legal Debate."
After describing the redevelopment process in Long Branch, which began in 1995, Aaron said neither legislation sponsored by Sen. Ronald L. Rice, D-Essex, or that of Assemblyman John Burzichelli, D-Gloucester, will cure what ails eminent domain.
Burzichelli's measure, approved by the Assembly in June, would limit what property can be taken, place more burdens on towns seeking redevelopment and give greater compensation to those who lose property. The Senate has yet to move Rice's version out of committee, said lawyer and event moderator John J. Reilly, a partner in the Westfield firm of Farer Fersko who specializes in condemnation law.
Aaron said what the bill needs is protection from people challenging an approved redevelopment plan more than 10 years after it was adopted, as is the case in Long Branch. Towns and developers need a sense of finality to the process, he said.
To that end, he proposed a measure in which a municipality would be forced to defend its plan in court when it was adopted, and a judge would rule immediately on whether a community can support its redevelopment designation. Every property owner in the zone would be made a party to the court action.
"I think there is some merit to what he is talking about," Wegener said after the session. Wegener, too, would impose protections, this time for property owners who find their properties designated for redevelopment — and unable to sell them to anyone but the chosen developer.
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