The Right to Take by Eminent Domain: "Follow the money..."

When Louis Anzalone appeared on the Hannity & Colmes syndicated television show Friday, February 17, and Hannity's radio broadcast on WABC-770 Monday, February 20 and Tuesday, February 21, it was clear that Hannity is sympathetic to the plight of the Anzalones, other senior citizens, and neighbors threatened with the loss of their homes by eminent domain. CNN followed on Saturday, February 25, with a special report about eminent domain cases in Long Branch. MTOTSA area residents, including Frances DeLuca and William Giordano, spoke out against eminent domain. Bruce MacCloud, who once owned property in what is now Beachfront North Phase I of Long Branch's massive redevelopment project, had his sound bite, too. While viewers were shown a picture of his 17-room Victorian home, the voiceover stresses that he was given only $140,000 for the property. MacCloud's home was demolished in November 2002, but his valuation trial has been postponed by the courts on at least three occasions. That $140,000 is just the city's offer based on its approved appraisal. That number will vigorously contested.

But there's one important distinction the media is not communicating about the eminent domain process in regard to the MTOTSA-area property owners: It's not about the money! These property owners are currently fighting about whether the city has the right to take their property by eminent domain or not. Their homes are not for sale at any price. The majority of the Marine Terrace, Ocean Terrace, and Seaview Avenue neighborhood stands together against the Beachfront North Phase II project takings.

New Jersey law provides when an eminent domain complaint is filed pursuant to Rule 4:73-1 and 4:67-1 that the case is heard in a summary manner. The Order to Show Cause for the appointment of condemnation commissioners is the first step in the valuation process. The order appointing commissioners is a final judgment on the right to take the property, State v. Orenstein, 124 N.J.Super. 295, 298 (App.Div.1973). All of the defendants named in complaints for the acquisitions required for Beachfront North Phase II have filed answers and are contesting the right to take. The Court could decide the issue on the return date of the Orders to Show Cause, which is now set for March 24, 2006 at 10 a.m. before the Honorable Lawrence Lawson, A.J.S.C. Monmouth County, in Freehold, N.J.

It is likely, however, given the complexity of these cases and the important legal issues which have been raised in defense of the right to take, that Judge Lawson may grant a full evidentiary hearing on the right to take issue and give limited discovery to the defendants. All proceedings in the condemnation action shall be stayed when a condemnee challenges a condemnor's authority to condemn. N.J.S.A. 20:3-11. The stay shall remain in effect until the condemnor's right to take is finally determined. The scope of the stay includes the condemnor's right to possession. Bridgewater Twp. v. Yarnell, 64 N.J. 211 (1974); Texas East. Trans. Corp. v. Wildlife Preserves, Inc., 48 N.J. 261, 269 (1966).

In a conference call with the court and council held February 27 on the record in the cases of City of Long Branch v. Anzalone and City of Long Branch v. DeLuca and the other cases involving the MTOTSA-area residents, OPRA (Open Public Records Act) requests made to the City of Long Branch for the conflicts memo prepared by the Greenbaum firm in November 2002 were expanded to include city attorney, James G. Aaron and his firm Ansell, Aaron, Grimm & Zaro. This memo, provided to Long Branch Mayor Adam Schneider and City Manager Howard H. Wooley, was originally thought to have discussed Greenbaum's own conflicts of interests. It is now believed that the memo may been prepared by the Greenbaum firm to absolve the members of the municipal council, James G Aaron, and his firm Anzell, Aaron, Grimm and Zaro of their own conflicts regarding transactions with the Monmouth Community Bank (Central Jersey Bank Corp.). The Ansell firm was appointed condemnation attorneys for the city in January, 25, 2005 and has been handling all phases of the redevelopment projects in Long Branch since the resignation of the Greenbaum firm in July 2005. Both Mr. Aaron and Mayor Schneider, a licensed NJ attorney, vigorously deny that any conflicts exist and have refused to supply counsel with the conflicts memorandum prepared by the Greenbaum firm. The court will decide this issue on March 24, 2006.

Aaron's firm, Ansell, Aaron, Grimm and Zaro, has represented Long Branch since at least 2001. During the same time period, the Ansell firm also represented and continues to represent K. Hovnanian, the co-developer of Beachfront North Phase I & II through its subsidiary Matzel Mumford. James G. Aaron was one of the founders and a major shareholder in Monmouth Community Bank. The City of Long Branch transferred funds into Monmouth Community Bank in 2002. At least three Long Branch council members, in addition to Mr. Aaron, own shares in the bank, and two of them Anthony Giordano, III, and David G. Brown are employed by the bank. These council members voted for and approved the amended redevelopment agreement which brought in Hovnanian as co-developer with Applied Management. The Applied Management Company, as confirmed by Gregory Russo, vice-president, borrowed money from Monmouth Community Bank for property acquisitions in connection with Beachfront North Phase I. As reported in the Asbury Park Press on November 24, 2002, "The Applied Development Co.'s two projects on the waterfront, in the Pier Village and Beachfront North sections, received short-term financing from the bank for property purchases, according to Gregory S. Russo, vice pres[id]ent of Applied."

As we have previously posted, The Rules of Professional Conduct applicable to all New Jersey attorneys are germane to this situation, specifically RPC 1.7 and RPC 1.8, which prohibit this type of activity by attorneys. RPC 1.7 specifically prohibits a municipality from waiving a conflict of interest. If the Ansell firm does not recuse itself, it runs the risk of being ordered to do so by the court on March 24. The conflicts of interest among the attorneys, the developers, and the City of Long Branch have tainted the entire eminent domain process. This issue, among other issues, including the blight determination, will be argued in an attempt to persuade the court to dismiss the eminent domain complaints filed against the MTOTSA-area residents.

Ed note: The City of Long Branch v. Anzalone was settled on September 15, 2009, after negotiations. The Anzalones claimed that the trial court erred by not allowing discovery on how the various conflicts of interest of city officials and the City's law firms might have influenced the decision to include their property in the redevelopment. In the Appellate Division opinion of August 7, 2008, the court wrote, "We find no reversible error in the trial court's findings regarding conflicts of interest, bona fide negotiations, or delegation of eminent domain authority." (Slip opinion, 6.)

Written By:Tohan On March 5, 2006 7:36 PM

The best thing for the people in New Branch N.J. was the national exposure of that despicable human being, Mayor Schneider...
Sean Hannity should show that clip over and over for the whole world to see.It is the best motivator for the anti-eminent domain movement in our country...

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