Eminent Domain Order & Opinion : Judge dismisses condemnation case in Bloomfield, N.J.

Essex County Assignment Judge Patricia K. Costello issued an order and opinion yesterday in Newark, N.J. dismissing the condemnation case filed by the Township of Bloomfield against 110 Washington Street Associates. Download the order and opinion

Today's Star Ledger reported that the ruling for the property owner jeopardizes Bloomfield's downtown redevelopment plan. This was the first condemnation case filed by the township in its redevelopment project for the downtown center. The decision of the court is a major setback for Bloomfield in its efforts to acquire property through eminent domain proceedings. The town’s plan was a joint venture of Forest City Ratner (Bruce Ratner)and Toll Brothers and included 650 residential condominiums and a 65,000 square foot Stop and Shop with an elevated parking deck.

The court found that the underlying planning process was fatally flawed. The Heyer and Gruel Planning Report improperly designated 110 Washington Street as meeting the definitions of blighted property under the Local Redevelopment Housing Law. The court said, “The record in this case is devoid of any finding that the property is detrimental to the public health, safety or welfare.”

In addition, the court ruled that it was improper for attorney Steven Martino to represent both the planning board and the mayor and council during the consideration of the redevelopment plan and the approval of the plan by the municipality. The court said:

The Defendant argues that the attorneys’ conflicts of interest in dual representation of both the Planning Board and the Township have tainted the determination that the subject property is in need of redevelopment. Clearly, the attorneys should not have represented both public entities at the same time. Such representation is expressly barred by statute. N.J.S.A. 40:55D-24. In addition there are numerous opinions criticizing the same conduct.

110 Washington Street previously filed an action in Lieu of Prerogative Writ which was dismissed by order of Judge Claude M. Coleman on May 27. Judge Costello ruled that Judge Coleman’s decision did not preclude her from dismissing this complaint, since Coleman’s ruling was based strictly on the matter having been filed after the 45-days within which a property owner can challenge municipal action. Judge Coleman did not make any findings of fact or conclusions of law on the merits of the case.

David Mandelbaum, principal of 110 Washington Associates, said he was satisfied with the result. He will keep his building, and the ruling may help other Bloomfield owners retain their properties.

In the companion case which was consolidated with 110 Washington Street, Lardieri et al v. Township of Bloomfield, Judge Coleman entered an order dismissing that complaint on July 20.
Given the ruling of Judge Costello yesterday, it's unlikely that the township will file additional condemnation complaints for the project which would include the properties owned by Alessandro Lardieri, Victor and Debbie Lewis, Lewis Santus, and Myrna and Lita Cicero, the plaintiffs in the companion case.

Debbie and Victor Lewis, who own Arlene's Bridal and Starlight Tuxedos, reacted to the news about 110 Washington Street.

"I'm so excited," said Debbie Lewis,"and my husband has not stopped jumping for joy!"

"It's one thing for someone to say, we'll give you some money for facade[s]. We'll put a new front on your building. I'd love to do that. I'd chip in some too," Victor Lewis told NJN-News today. "But don't tell me I have to lose my building to redevelop the area."

Mayor Raymond McCarthy countered, "We're going to have to go further with the appeal process because the plan is specific, and what it calls for is a revitalization. It doesn't call for a mish-mosh! A mish-mosh didn't work--we experienced that about ten years ago when we tried to change this, tried to change that. In an area like this which was in such dire need of help, the idea and the best plan is to move forward, bring everything down to the ground, and build up again. That's the only way we're going to be able to do this effectively."

The news of yesterday's decision spread to Brooklyn where Forest City Ratner plans to redevelop the Atlantic Yards and surrounding neighborhoods. Ratner has drawn up a memo advocating the use of eminent domain to force area owners to sell their homes and businesses. Ratner's plan to make Brooklyn a "24-hour city" would solidify the extension of the downtown commercial area to east of Flatbush Avenue with a large housing element.

Daniel Goldstein, spokesperson for Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn, a community coalition fighting Forest City Ratner's proposed use of eminent domain in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn, said, "If Forest City Ratner and New York's Empire State Development Corporation try to make similar blight findings in Brookyn, we are sure they will meet the same fate they have in Bloomfield, New Jersey. And clearly the lack of a planning process for the Ratner proposal in Brooklyn is a fatal flaw, as it was in Bloomfield."

Goldstein added, "We are very happy for our allies in New Jersey, and that justice has won out, as we expect it to do in Brooklyn."

It's not right to call it blight...View image

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