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Report on Eminent Domain lists abuses in land seizures

A review of New Jersey court cases shows the state law governing eminent domain use for private redevelopment is written in a way that leads to abuse, according to a Public Advocate report released on Wednesday.

The Legislature must act swiftly to change the state’s redevelopment law, protect people’s rights and guarantee that sound redevelopment projects garner public support, Public Advocate Ronald K. Chen said.

“The findings in this report crystallize the urgent need for our Legislature to change the state redevelopment law,” Chen said. “When the government misuses the power of eminent domain, people can lose their homes without real evidence that their neighborhood is blighted, without adequate notice or hearings and without fair compensation.”

Chen supports legislation, A-3257, that would change the Local Redevelopment and Housing Law. The proposal would tighten the definition of blight and ensure property owners receive fair notice and just compensation when local officials must use eminent domain for private redevelopment. The state Assembly passed that bill in June 2006, by a vote of 51 to 18, but a companion measure remains stalled in the Senate.

The report, a follow-up to one issued last May, recounts court cases involving eminent domain abuse. It focuses on four types of abuse:

  • Bogus blight designations, based on little more than chipping paint, loose gutters and weedy patches;
  • Stealth takings, when towns fail to provide plain-language notice to owners that their property may be condemned and fail to hold fair hearings, leaving owners to challenge the use of eminent domain in court, where the rules are also stacked against them;
  • Inadequate compensation and relocation assistance, leaving vulnerable people uncertain where and how they will find a new home or launch a new business; and
  • Potential conflicts of interest raising questions about whether, in either appearance or reality, public officials stand to benefit personally from the takings they approve.

Chen noted that during the department’s research on this issue and debates over legislative reform, some have suggested there is no detailed evidence of eminent domain abuse and therefore no problem to fix. In response, the department issued this second report highlighting particular cases of misuse of the redevelopment process that have violated the rights and disrupted the lives of New Jersey families.

The report is not intended to document every, nor even the typical, use of eminent domain for redevelopment. Municipalities across New Jersey have responsibly used redevelopment tools to revitalize their communities. Instead, the report highlights the ongoing abuses that current law allows.

Many other cases involving allegations of eminent domain abuses have been brought to the Public Advocate’s attention. The report, however, addresses only those cases in which either New Jersey courts have made findings of fact or department attorneys have assessed the record after the Public Advocate entered the case as a friend of the court.

The report notes that it is impossible to know the prevalence of eminent domain abuse. Many homeowners whose rights are violated lack the resources to engage in expensive litigation with towns. So they simply pack up and move.

“It is clear from these cases that people’s rights have been violated,” Chen said. “That is because the state statute allows it. It is time to change the redevelopment law so people’s rights are protected, while allowing sound redevelopment projects to move forward.”

To read the full report and the Public Advocate’s other publications on eminent domain, go to www.state.nj.us/publicadvocate.

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