Long Branch, NJ Eminent Domain
City of Long Branch v. Gregory P. Brower
IJ President and General Counsel, Chip Mellor (left) and Senior Attorney, Scott Bullock, join IJ client Lori Vendetti at a press conference in Long Branch, New Jersey.
Across the United States, local governments are using the power of eminent domain to seize private homes, businesses and farms in order to transfer property to other private owners for their private use. More often than not, governments justify these private-to-private transfers by claiming that the property is “blighted” and will be “redeveloped” by the new owner thereby supposedly creating more jobs and taxes.
As is the case in Long Branch, N.J., however, the definition of “blight” has become so broad and unprincipled that governments regularly target perfectly fine homes in ordinary neighborhoods for the wrecking ball. Modest homes with spectacular oceanfront views in vibrant neighborhoods can be condemned for reasons like “diversity of ownership,” meaning that each home is owned by a separate family—something that should be a point of pride for Americans rather than an excuse to take what rightfully belongs to a homeowner. If owning your own home means your house is blighted, whose house isn’t blighted?
The Institute for Justice represented the Long Branch homeowners who fought their City’s effort to forcibly take their homes and hand the land over to private developers who planned to make tens of millions of dollars building upscale condos for the wealthy. In August 2008, a three-judge panel of the New Jersey Appellate Division unanimously reversed a 2006 decision of Superior Court Judge Lawrence Lawson, which had allowed Long Branch to condemn MTOTSA for a luxury condominium development. (MTOTSA is an acronym for the streets Marine Terrace, Ocean Terrace and Seaview Avenue, the neighborhood targeted for eminent domain for private gain.) After the case was sent back to the trial court and the city announced that it was willing to drop the eminent domain actions, the parties began discussing how to resolve the remaining issues in the case, leading to an agreement in September 2009.
Under the terms of the agreement, the city had to dismiss the eminent domain actions filed against the MTOTSA homeowners in 2005. Just as important, the order also provided that the city is barred from taking the homes in the future under the current or any subsequent redevelopment plan. The agreement further provided that the homeowners could take advantage of tax abatements, just as the city-designated developer was permitted to do, for reinvesting in their properties. The city is also paid a portion of the attorneys’ fees for the homeowners.
Importantly, the agreement imposed obligations on the city and the developer to improve conditions in a neighborhood that was neglected because the city and its hand-picked developer originally wanted it entirely demolished to build upscale condominiums. The city must now repave and repair all the streets in the neighborhood and repair long-neglected neighborhood street lights.
The developer must also clean up the damage it caused to the neighborhood. The developer-owned homes in MTOTSA were abandoned and boarded-up, causing decline and posing safety and crime problems. Under the agreement, the developer must start work on demolition of the abandoned homes immediately, with all the developer-owned homes being demolished by April 2, 2010. The developer plans on eventually building new homes in the area. The court will maintain jurisdiction over the agreement to ensure that its terms are enforced.
The MTOTSA folks have kept their homes and their neighborhood also has a chance to be renewed.