EMINENT DOMAIN AT THE SHORE: Going Coastal in Long Branch, N.J.

"Well, suppose an economist or even the judge might say, well, it's very clear that if this economic depression continues for another five years we are going to have blight. Blight is in the eye of the beholder, I know that." Justice Kennedy, Feb. 22, 2005 during the oral argument in Kelo v. New London
What's the matter with Long Branch? The city designated whole neighborhoods along the oceanfront mile as blighted. "We lived under the cloud of eminent domain since 1983," said Fred Strahlendorf, whose house in Beachfront North was condemned in 2002. According to yesterday's Star Ledger, the remaining area, with its neat bungalows and ranch houses, comprises New Jersey's largest coastal development project. If a fair-minded person were to look at these homes which are owner-occupied, well maintained, and structurally sound, they would ask: "How is this blight?"

"Our particular case started ten years ago, and it's still not resolved," said Strahlendorf. City of Long Branch v. Strahlendorf, which our firm handled, resulted in a jury verdict of $500,000 on July 23, 2003. Long Branch initially offered Strahlendorf $134,000 prior to trial and testified to $179,000 at trial. See Atlanticville, July 25, 2003.The Strahlendorf verdict was appealed by Long Branch and the verdict was affirmed by the Appellate Division. The New Jersey Supreme Court denied Long Branch's petition for certiorari on April 5, 2005. The verdict was final; but as of Friday, June 23, almost two years since the verdict, the Strahlendorfs had not been paid their just compensation.

The last of the first group of trials encompassing the condemnation of Beachfront North will take place this fall: City of Long Branch v. Bruce and Cathy MacCloud. The MacClouds owned 47 Cooper Avenue, a 17-room home which Bruce renovated completely since he purchased it with his father in the late 1970s. The MacClouds were not willing sellers, but the right to take the property has already been decided and the house demolished. What remains is just compensation, the guarantee which our Constitution gives every property owner whose property is acquired for a public project. MacCloud has been offered the meager sum of $140,000 for his home, which was 300 feet from the beach between Ocean Avenue and the Atlantic Ocean.

While this figure may appear shocking to most right-minded citizens, it is business as usual for Long Branch and its designated redevelopers, Applied Management/K. Hovnanian. The MacCloud lot alone, almost 10,000 square feet is worth four times as much; and MacCloud's appraiser opines that the property is worth $630,000. A jury will determine the value of the home.

My sense of the reaction post-Kelo is that the public is outraged over the actions of government; we expect the jury verdicts in upcoming cases will reflect this. Reflecting on the decision in Kelo, Fred Strahlendorf said, "I think it's fuel for abuse and corruption." Indeed, the blight section of the constitution has been perverted by local municipalities and greedy developers seeking higher taxes and enormous profits.

We represent several property owners in the remaining section of Beachfront North. These condemnations have not commenced. There is a strong conviction among the property owners who have formed the group known as MTOTSA to fight the right to take the properties. Given the Kelo decision and the numerous decisions in the New Jersey courts upholding blight in the LRHL, this challenge will have little chance of success.

The only hope for property owner remains with their elected representatives who should amend the LRHL to give them some protections in these circumstances. The current euphemism for blight, an area in need of redevelopment, is simply wrong. Judge Pressler's opinion in Concerned Citizens of Princeton, Inc. v. Mayor and Council of the Borough of Princeton, 370 N.J. Super 429, 851A.2d 685 (App. Div. 2004), which says this is a distinction without a difference, must be overturned. The way to do that is not through the courts but through the legislature. Blight determinations must also be capped. Long Branch was blighted ten years ago, and the condemnations for the second part of Beachfront North have not been filed. Asbury Park was blighted over twenty years ago, and the developer went bankrupt and the redevelopment project stopped.

There is a concept in condemnation law that the property owner must be made whole. The verdicts in these cases, even if they are very favorable, will not give the property owners a sufficient sum of money to buy back into the new condominium project at a price they can afford. In short, these projects are discriminatory against the retired and elderly home owners. It forces these citizens out of homes they have owned for 30 to 40 years; it will push them further west to more affordable housing, away from the ocean they love. Of course, the City of Long Branch would respond that they will be paid for relocation under the Relocation Assistance Act, NJSA 20:4-1. So what? This just covers moving expenses. How does that make them whole?

Fred and Dorothy Strahlendorf presently reside in Indian Shores, Florida, but would like to come back to the Jersey shore, where they lived for 25 years in a home they enjoyed with their children and grandchildren.

Written By:Natalie On June 30, 2005 5:04 PM

This story about Long Branch must be trumpeted to the country. I am very afraid that Sea Bright is the next on the list. The disturbing trend of politicians in bed with developers is continuing at a very fast pace in NJ. The corruption alone that eminent domaine brings is a pox on all the municipal and local politicians in the smaller towns on the Jersey Shore. Keep up the good fight and contact me if you need another strident voice of outrage directed towards Trenton.