Atlantic City Eminent Domain
Casino Reinvestment Development Authority v. Charles and Lucinda Birnbaum et al.
Atlantic City Eminent Domain
IJ client Charlie Birnbaum. Download high-resolution photo.
Charlie Birnbaum’s is a classic American story. His parents—both immigrants and survivors of the Holocaust—left him many things: a love of this country, a deep passion for music and a home right near the boardwalk in Atlantic City. That home—his parents’ foothold in their adopted country—has been a source of love, tragedy and renewal to the Birnbaum family for the past 50 years. Charlie now keeps an apartment and piano studio on the ground floor; the top two floors are given over to longtime tenants who pay below-market rents; and the whole building is devoted to the memory of Charlie’s parents.
Unfortunately, a state agency, the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority (CRDA), is trying to change all that. New Jersey’s CRDA is trying to use eminent domain to seize Charlie’s property as part of a “mixed-use development” project to complement the recently-bankrupt Revel Casino. The trouble is that CRDA has no concrete plans to do anything in particular with Charlie’s property—other than get rid of it. CRDA does not actually need Charlie’s property to develop the surrounding neighborhood. Instead, CRDA is just trying to take Charlie’s home because it thinks it can.
Eminent domain has traditionally been understood as the power of government to take private property for a public use, like a road or a public school. But some state agencies, like New Jersey’s CRDA, abuse eminent domain to take property for purely private development, like shopping centers and high-end boutiques. There has been a nationwide backlash against this kind of eminent domain abuse in recent years and New Jersey courts have been among those to restrict the use of eminent domain, but New Jersey officials seem to be among the last to hear about it.
Even though it does not have any concrete plans for Charlie’s property, CRDA attempts to justify its land grab by pointing to the supposed need to redevelop the neighborhood. But pure economic development is not a public use, and CRDA does not need Charlie’s property to redevelop the area surrounding the Revel casino. Indeed, many of the lots in the neighborhood are empty and are for sale and CRDA is free to purchase them. Charlie’s property, a sturdy and well-maintained brick townhouse located at the very edge of the proposed redevelopment area, is simply not necessary to develop the neighborhood.
The bottom line is that CRDA is not condemning Charlie’s property because CRDA needs it, but because it thinks it can. CRDA is trying to use government force to take Charlie’s modest home and replace it with something else—even though CRDA cannot identify what that something else is. For too long, CRDA has been allowed to get away with whatever it wants, and that means it has started to act like it can get away with whatever it wants. CRDA is about to learn otherwise. That is why, on April 1, 2014, the Institute for Justice filed papers challenging CRDA’s unconstitutional attempt to seize Charlie’s property using eminent domain.