The government’s power of eminent domain is being used to condemn private property for the construction of new schools in 31 “special needs” school districts known as “Abbott districts” as well as for a variety of redevelopment projects. When your rights to private property clash with the government’s authority to act for the benefit of the public, ignorance of the law can be costly.

In 2002, New Jersey created the New Jersey School Construction Corporation (“SCC”) who, along with the New Jersey Department of Education, is working with school districts to manage the construction of new schools. This is a project expected to cost approximately $6 billion. In order to build new schools, the SCC must acquire land by negotiating a voluntary purchase from property owners. If these negotiations fail, the SCC will file condemnation actions to force the taking of property. In most cases, a property owner will be unable to challenge the government’s right to take the property since construction of a public school provides a valuable benefit to the public. However, a property owner does have the right to challenge and negotiate “just compensation” for the property and should consider retaining an experienced appraiser and attorney for assistance.

Prior to filing a lawsuit to take private property, the government must first try to purchase the property from the owner through bona fide negotiations. The government will retain an appraiser to determine the value of the property at its “highest and best use”, and use the appraised value as its initial offer for the property. A prudent owner will seek the assistance of an attorney who will use an independent appraiser to evaluate the government’s offer, and negotiate “just compensation” for the property. Recently I settled a case immediately before trial where the government’s appraisal of my client’s property was $100,000 and the property owner’s appraisal was $5.2 million. Factors such as comparable sales, potential uses of the property, and market conditions must be addressed in order to make certain the property owner is paid the full value for their property.

Property value is not the only issue in some cases – environmental contamination situations may arise. Many Abbott districts are located in older industrial cities and school construction may require the acquisition of complexes with environmental problems. It is possible that environmental clean-up costs could be deducted from your compensation.

Redevelopment plans present a entirely different set of challenges to property owners because the line between private and public benefit is not always clear. A municipality may designate certain portions of the town as redevelopment zones and present plans that call for private property to be acquired. Some high profile redevelopment plans are located in Asbury Park and Camden. Outdated or deteriorating buildings are said to create a “blighting influence” on a neighborhood. Many redevelopment plans are now being challenged by property owners who disagree with the government’s assessment of their neighborhood, and feel the primary beneficiaries of redevelopment plans are the new property owners. The procedure to challenge a redevelopment plan is beyond the scope of this article, but any property owner whose property is being considered for inclusion in a redevelopment plan should obtain a copy of the plan before its is adopted and consult with an attorney to discuss their available options.

Stark & Stark is a law firm with an experienced team of environmental, land use and condemnation litigators who can help property owners protect their rights.