Public Advocate Ronald K. Chen released a follow up report on May 29, 2007, addressing what he perceives as abuses in the use of eminent domain to acquire property for redevelopment projects.  After setting forth a synopsis of specific examples of eminent domain abuse arising in cases decided by the New Jersey courts, the Public Advocate suggests several remedies which seemed to be directed towards his critics and the legislators considering amending the existing laws.  However, are  Public Advocate Ronald J. Chen and the two legislators who sponsored bills aimed at reforming the law (Senator Ronald Rice (D-Essex) and Assemblyman John Burzichelli (D-Gloucester)) on a course to reach a proper balance in the law?  Possibly, but more work is needed.

    What is at stake is the right to own property on one hand, and the need to encourage and complete redevelopment plans in truly blighted areas.  When used properly, redevelopment can turn a blighted and unsafe area into a thriving and safe neighborhood.  However, when abused, properties which have some deferred maintenance issues (i.e. chipped paint) are being taken to make room for higher end homes and businesses, changes need to be made.  The proper balance can be achieved by focusing on the following issues.

    First, the issue of what constitutes “blight” must be addressed.  The New Jersey Constitution limits the taking of private property for private redevelopment to blighted properties only. Some believe that the vague definitions in the Local Redevelopment and Housing Law have greatly expanded this limitation and would allow virtually all of New Jersey to be placed in an “area in need of redevelopment” since a land planner could most likely find a problem in every home and conclude that, based upon today’s design and land use standards, the property in not fully productive or fully utilized.  The proper balance can be achieved by changing the definition of an “area in need of redevelopment” to one that is closer to the constitutional requirement of blight.

    Second, all public notices should be use plain language and delivered to homeowners, not just published in the local newspaper.  The public must be told that their local government is considering action that may involve the condemnation of their homes or business.  For a person to understand the type of notice used by most towns seeking to designate an area in need of redevelopment, he or she would have to enroll in law school and take several classes in land use law.  The law needs to be changed so that property owners receive notice in a manner designed to allow them to seek professional advice on how to proceed.

    Third, make it clear that the condemning authority must prove, at every stage, that the property is blighted.  All hearings need to be open to the public with a detailed explanation of what exactly will happen if a redevelopment plan is approved.  Each step must be explained, with an opportunity to ask questions and present proofs.  A detailed record needs to be made in order to allow for proper judicial review when the time comes.

    Finally, compensation needs to be fair. Under the present law, compensation is often inadequate and the relocation benefits minimal, at best.  Property owners should not be given a windfall, but need to be made whole in order to meet the requirement of just compensation.  It is the “making whole” that needs to be addressed. Much of the resistence to the legitimate exercise of eminent domain would be eliminated if property owners felt adequately compensated and relocation costs covered.

    In regards to residential property owners, they must be paid enough money to find  replacement housing in a safe and comparable neighborhood.  In some circumstances, replacement housing may cost more than the property being taken.  Under existing law, the measure of damages is generally the fair market value of the property being taken.  In many cases, the fair market value standard works.  However, when replacement housing cannot be purchased with the fair market value taking proceeds, a property owner must have some other recourse in order to be justly compensated.

    As for businesses, New Jersey law only requires a condemning authority to compensate a property owner for the real estate, not the business itself.  The only requirement is to relocate the business.  Often times, a business is dependent upon a certain location (i.e. down town location) and cannot afford a rent increase.  If there are no affordable business locations available, the business may be forced to close. The law needs to be reformed to take into consideration rent differentials and allow business owners an opportunity to prove that additional compensation is needed to allow them to survive.

    Redevelopment is a necessary planning tool for many parts of New Jersey.  We have neighborhoods and cities that need to be revived for the long-term health of our State and its residents.  However, eminent domain cannot be used simply because a town decides it prefers a more upscale neighborhood or needs additional tax ratables.  The proper balance will allow blighted areas to be redeveloped, but stop the abusive practice detrimental to the rights of property owners.