More testimony for New Jersey eminent domain reform

“There’s no such thing as a perfect bill…Everyday when you make a change, another fax rolls in.” – Senator Ronald Rice, Chair of the Community and Urban Affairs Committee

The vote was tabled and, since the last hearing of the Senate Community and Urban Affairs committee, much ado has been made about tensions among committee members and problems in the process of merging the Senate and Assembly bills. Near the conclusion of Thursday’s hearing, Senator Madden (D-Gloucester) complained that he received the 63-page bill late Wednesday afternoon. He didn’t have enough time to read it.

But some Long Branch residents did. Here are some highlights from their testimony. (To listen to the full recording of the March 15 meeting of the Senate Community and Urban Affairs Committee, log on to the New Jersey Legislature web site. )  

“I want to remind you that this is Sunshine Week,” Michele Bobrow said. “A lot of things in eminent domain are going on behind closed doors: arrangements, contracts are all behind closed doors. The balance of power is remaining with developers and municipalities….We don’t want valuation: we want to be able to stay in our homes and businesses.”

“I read every single word of this bill,” Harold Bobrow said. “I think there are certain things that need to be addressed. For instance, individuals who need affordable housing: if they’re dwelling in the redevelopment zone, are they going to have the ability to pay the taxes in the redevelopment zone? "

Bobrow added, “There has to be grandfathering…. We are in Long Branch; we invested in the city 18 years ago, and because now, they want the view we have…the bottom line is when this is done, it has to be done fairly.” Bobrow said he is in favor of eminent domain as a tool, but not eminent domain abuse. “You’re eliminating the words ‘fair market value.’ Why was that eliminated?”

“It’s an area where we want to make sure that you get the greatest value,” Senator Rice responded. The discussion about fair market value touched on outstanding bona-fide mortgages on properties that were higher than the offer appraisals.

“You take your Long Branch,” Rice said. “You can’t decide you can make more money, more windfalls and go seizing properties when people had expectations. And they know what you were going to do but they had expectations that they were going to be okay. You can’t do that anymore.”

Senator Sharp James weighed in. “At the federal level, 1400 class 1-A homes went to make Route 78…Maybe the abuse we are talking about is urban renewal. My question is: I would like you to explain this grandfather issue. What teeth could be put in this bill?”

Bobrow answered, “These people have already put their heart and soul into what they have. There has to be something that is done with the people who are in the middle of this process.”

“You want retroactive?” asked James.

“Yes,” said Bobrow. He described bringing the issue before the Long Branch city council. He asked, "Why should there not be a place for people with affordable housing integrated into the process?”

“You want Mt. Laurel,” said James. “You don’t want what happened in Jersey City…it was called gentrification.”

“You need to give them tax abatements,” said Bobrow. “So they can stay there.”

James said, “You indicated this bill was weak: What teeth would you put in it?”

Michele Bobrow answered, “We’re talking about affordable housing – the name of the game is economic development. We need more balance. We need a moratorium on taking until this is finalized. As Ronald Chen the public advocate has said, the very least we can do is make whole the people who are losing their homes and their businesses.”

"When this process started to happen to us, we used the dictionary a lot. I talked to our city planning official for two hours to know the difference between revitalization and redevelopment,"  said Denise Hoagland. She suggested specific language is given to residents so they fully understand that property can be seized. Hoagland wants more changes in the notice provisions. "I do not think 10 days is enough time," she said. "We need a stronger notification process."

Hoagland, whose property is in the Long Branch MTOTSA neighborhood, added, "Location. There is no way that the city can replace our home. The reason eminent domain is being used is because of location."

Her neighbor, Lori Vendetti, also testified, “We’re three properties away from the ocean. There’s no way that we’re blighted. Hovnanian and Applied want our properties to build 185 luxury condos. …The grandfather issue: It should apply to all cases on appeal….Obsolete?... Homes that are 50 years old? I want an old home - I want an old Victorian home...We left the door still open for every home to be taken for eminent domain."

The homeowners have spoken. But will they prevail against the interests of the League of Municipalities, Morris Companies, or NAIOP?

Senator Rice said, “The public testimony is over. Any comments you have, get them back to us.”

Senator Sharpe James said, “[On] The issue of pay-to-play, the enemy is us…On the subject of eminent domain, the enemy is us. I heard the hue and cry from the people….Do the right thing….We owe it to the people to weigh in on the side of the people instead of a political solution.”

A final composite of the Senate and Assembly Bills is yet to be determined. Major issues remain:

§          How will blight be defined? Substandard or unsafe buildings (Burizichelli) or “in need of redevelopment?” (Rice).

§          How do you prove blight? By preponderance of the evidence (Burzichelli) or substantial evidence (Rice)?

§          Will it be “fair market value,” prevailing market rates or the best of several valuation dates?

The next committee meeting has not been scheduled yet.