New Jersey Eminent Domain Redevelopment: Forest City Ratner coming to Bloomfield

"When you have a location for 23 years, how do you replace that? How do you pick up and start over again? When you lose a location, you may never start up again." -- Alessandro Lardieri, plaintiff

The developer that would move the New Jersey Nets to Brooklyn, Forest City Ratner, plans to bring in Toll Brothers to build 600 residential units along with retail in the Township of Bloomfield redevelopment project. The anchor for the revitalization of downtown Bloomfield would be a Stop & Shop grocery store in a 65,000 square foot shopping center with three stories of parking on top. This project will take advantage of Manhattan Midtown Direct rail service, now available on the New Jersey Transit Montclair line, which has resulted in a real estate boom in Montclair and Glen Ridge.

Yesterday over 50 concerned citizens, tenants, owners, and friends dressed in "Stop Eminent Domain Abuse" tee-shirts and gathered at the Essex County Courthouse for the first skirmish of the battle with Bloomfield on the right to take these properties through eminent domain proceedings. As reported in today's Star Ledger, the group has been fighting the project, which they said would illegally take their land and businesses.

"They are trying to say my building is blighted, and there is no way it is blighted," said Alessandro Lardieri, who owns a building at Bloomfield Avenue and Ward Street.

But Judge Claude M. Coleman dismissed the action in lieu of Prerogative Writ brought by four property owners contesting the designation of their properties as blighted (a.k.a., an area in need of redevelopment). This was accomplished with no findings of fact and conclusion of law as required by R. 1:7-4. Judge Coleman simply said that the litigants were beyond the 45 days to contest municipal action.

Judge Coleman refused to recognize this case as a matter of "public interest" or "in the interests of justice" -- two reasons to extend beyond the 45 days per the decision 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). Judge Coleman's ruling was made despite proofs that when the underlying action was before the planning board, and the mayor and council, the same attorneys represented both entities with regard to plaintiff's properties and the adoption of the blight study. This is improper conduct and the Supreme Court has said so in ethics opinions and in dicta in the case of Wilson v. City of Long Branch.

United States Supreme Court Justice Kennedy said, in page two of his concurring opinion in Kelo v. New London, "A court confronted with a plausible accusation of impermissible favoritism to private parties should treat the objection as a serious one and review the record to see if it has merit...." Thus, the trial court should take a close look at the underlying municipal action where there is an allegation of impropriety. Ironically, both Judge Coleman and the attorney for the Township of Bloomfield acknowledge these very same issues can be raised as a defense to the condemnation complaints if the property owner chooses to contest the right to take the property. See Hirth v. City of Hoboken; Spylen v. North Bergen. This distinction makes no sense. If the Prerogative Writ suit were allowed to go forward with limited discovery and a hearing on the record, the plaintiffs could establish, through sworn testimony, the facts necessary to throw out the municipal action.

Why should these issues await a hearing on the "right to take" where the assignment judge may or may not permit depositions and the taking of testimony? The plaintiffs in 110 Washington Street Associates v. Township of Bloomfield , a companion case to Lardieri et al v. Township of Bloomfield, will receive a ruling from Essex County Assignment Judge Patricia Costello within two weeks on these same issues.

Debra Lewis, the owner of Arlene's Bridal Salon on Bloomfield Avenue said, "It is not going to stop us. We are going to appeal it, and we aren't going to let them take our building and our business."

Stay tuned.