Eminent Domain Reform Bill S-1975: Let the Public Hearings Begin

“Unfortunately, eminent domain happens to be a necessary evil, like affirmative action….We recognize the major issue is one of equity and fairness.” – Senator Ronald Rice, Chair of the Senate Community and Urban Affairs Committee

On Thursday evening October 26, eminent domain reform took center stage as New Jersey Senator Ronald Rice (D-Essex) held the first of several hearings on S-1975, the bill that has evolved from Assemblyman Burzichelli’s version (A-3257). Burzichelli’s bill was passed by the Assembly on June 22, 2006, and referred immediately to Senator Rice’s committee. Thursday’s meeting was held at the Irvington Senior Citizen Community Center on Springfield Avenue.

The next committee hearing is scheduled for Monday October 30 at 4:30 p.m. at the Lakewood Municipal Complex in Lakewood, New Jersey. Citizens and other interested parties should appear at the hearing to testify and/or submit written comments to Senator Rice. Testimony is at the Senator’s discretion and not everyone desiring to testify will have an opportunity if there are time constraints. Arrive early and fill out the form provided.

Details of Thursday's testimony...

Senator Rice recognized Irvington Mayor Wayne Smith as the first speaker. Irvington is one of those distressed communities, located between Newark and Maplewood,  which is in desperate need of revitalization and an increase in its tax base.

“One of the tools we need to have is the power of eminent domain under the current redevelopment laws,” the Mayor said. “The challenge is when communities [such as Irvington] grow, eminent domain is absolutely necessary to advance growth.” Mayor Smith acknowledged that protection should be given to property owners and abuses should be discouraged.

I was the second speaker called to the podium. As I have opined in previous posts, my testimony to the committee stressed the necessity of a comprehensive review of all the statutes that govern eminent domain and relocation regulations. Senator Rice invited me to submit written comments which will be posted here upon completion. Senator Rice affirmed that his committee is indeed considering changes to the Local Redevelopment Housing Law (LRHL), N.J.S.A. 40A:12A-1; the Eminent Domain Act of 1971, N.J.S.A. 20:3-1; and the Relocation Assistance Act, N.J.S.A. 20:4-1.

One of the key issues that property owners directly affected by threatened acquisition should be aware of is the effective date of the act, assuming the bill is passed by the Senate and signed into law by the Governor, and whether the act will apply to pending cases, such as those in Long Branch and Asbury Park. The bill in its present form does away with the project influence rule, and would permit the property owner’s appraiser to value the acquired property based on the development plan. The present law limits property owners to value based on the underlying zoning unless they can prove probability of zone change. See See Jersey City Redevelopment v. Kugler 58 NJ 374, 379 (1971), and State v. Gorga 26 NJ 113, 117 (1958).

One of the chief benefits we see to the proposed changes is the transparency which will now be in the initial notice to property owners regarding their properties inclusion in an area of need of redevelopment. The law, if it is passed, will require these notices sent to both property owners and the tenants to state clearly that the municipal action could result in the properties being acquired by eminent domain proceeding. This will get their attention in time to contest the proposed action.

Senator Rice indicated, by his discussion with members of the public who testified and directives to his staff, that he will need to continue to study and address several important issues:

§          The number of years within which a blight declaration will remain effective

§          Transparency in the government process leading up to adoption of a blight declaration

§          Transparency and clarity in the notice provisions to the property owners and tenants effected by the municipal action

§          Issues dealing with small businesses (the “mom and pop stores”) as well as residences

§          Environmental concerns

Property owner Santos Cruz, a member of Citizens in Action of Mt. Holly, New Jersey, testified. Mr. Cruz indicated that he was born in Puerto Rico, an American citizen by birth, and had built up a viable business in Mt. Holly that supports his family. “[Eminent domain] is a sword that cuts both ways. You’re making it impossible to live in this state,” Cruz said. “I worked hard to get a piece of the pie and you’re taking it away. We worked for the American dream and you people have made it the American nightmare….If holding land in the United States is not sacred, then what you are going to do? What are we fighting for? The people want fairness – there’s no fairness in the law.”

Senator Rice agreed that there should be fairness in the process, but he also stated that he needs to get 21 votes to advance the bill.

George Mytrowitz, a member of the Newark Mulberry Street Coalition,  addressed issues concerning the duration of blight designation and the adverse effect on small businesses, many of which don’t survive the acquisition and relocation process, thus eliminating essential services to the effective areas. “Eminent domain is killing the blue collar jobs,” he said. “Our property is not blighted. We will prove that in court… A moratorium needs to be put in place while [this issue] is explored.”

Manuel Amaral, a small business owner from Harrison, made an emotional appeal to Senator Rice. “I called my mayor," he stated. "How come you guys are taking my property? I’m very concerned for my future, my kids’ future, and my neighbors….I see my future, my kids’ future going down the drain... There’s no place in Harrison to go. I’ve worked 30 years for this….We’re losing our freedom.”

Linda Brnicevic, a member of  the Bound Brook Concerned Citizens Coalition, spoke about conditions in her community. Hurricane Floyd flooded large portions of Bound Brook in 1999. Her property and those of her neighbors were among the affected properties. Bound Brook appears to be using the circumstance of the flood as a reason to declare her area “in need of redevelopment.” Parenthetically, she noted that Bound Brook also seeks to eliminate a large Hispanic segment of the community by acquiring and redeveloping these properties. “This was a silver bullet to cleanse the community,” she said.

Displacement is a sad corollary to natural disasters, such as those areas affected by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in New Orleans and portions of Missisippi. The community is not only displaced by the natural disaster, they are permanently removed through governmental action couched in terms of redevelopment.  Read Linda Brnicevic’s written testimony to the committee.

Among other people offering testimony were William Potter, Esq., of Potter and Dickson, chairman of the Stop Eminent Domain Abuse Coalition, who addressed the definition of blight and how far the legislature has taken the word “blight” from its original constitutional meaning in the LRHL. He referenced Public Advocate Ronald Chen’s report on this issue.

Concerned citizens are welcome to forward written testimony submitted to the Senate Community and Urban Affairs Committee to us for publication.  We reserve the right to edit for length.