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IJ Works Wonders: How IJ Took on Bogus Blight Declarations

As part of the Institute for Justice’s 30th Anniversary celebration (1991-2021), our “IJ Works Wonders” series looks back on IJ cases that fundamentally transformed the law and the lives of our clients.

When the Supreme Court declared open season on homeowners in the notorious 2005 Kelo decision, which ruled that eminent domain could be used for economic development, local governments across the country went hunting for homes and neighborhoods on behalf of influential developers.  IJ leapt to the defense of family homes by taking strategic cases in state courts to convince jurists that their state constitutions provided greater protections for property rights than the Supreme Court recognized in Kelo under the U.S. Constitution.

One such fight began along the Jersey Shore in December 2005—less than six months after Kelo—when the city of Long Branch seized a seaside neighborhood of cozy WWII-era homes so a developer could build glitzy condos.  This was classic eminent domain abuse, taking the beloved homes of people of modest means, including many elderly folks, to replace them with fancier homes and wealthier residents.

The Vendetti family—Carmen and Josephine along with their daughter Lori—weren’t going to let themselves and their neighbors become victims of Long Branch’s “progress.”  Carmen, a truck driver from Newark, and his wife, Josephine (lovingly known as Fifi), bought a lot there in 1960 and Carmen built a brick home by hand so his children could enjoy the Jersey Shore.  They retired there in 1989.  Lori bought a home across the street.  The shore is a mere block away in this famous and historic city, which has served as a summer retreat for seven presidents.

Long Branch planned to bulldoze the Vendettis’ homes to eradicate “blight”—even though our clients’ homes and most others were in great condition.  Under New Jersey law, a blight designation meant you could throw the baby out with the bathwater by clearing everything away, including the modest, but carefully maintained homes.  Indeed, Long Branch had long ignored deteriorating conditions in the area to manufacture the very blight they needed to justify the land grab.  In heroic defiance of the city’s threats, Lori repainted her house a brilliant blue, dotted her yard with Hands Off My Home posters, and dressed her playful dog Tali in IJ t-shirts.  Her message: We’re not going anywhere.

A bogus blight designation was a familiar ploy in eminent domain abuse nationwide.  This made the Long Branch case a perfect strategic vehicle not just for saving our clients’ neighborhood, but also for setting precedent to help Americans everywhere facing unjust condemnations.

Lori, her parents and her neighbors defeated Long Branch when the court of appeals ruled that the New Jersey Constitution forbids sweeping definitions of blight that would render virtually every property blighted, especially older neighborhoods with homes, parcels and streets that don’t conform to the latest standards.  For example, Rose LaRosa’s lovingly cared for home was declared “blighted” because it had only two bedrooms, which was all her father could afford when he built the home to honor her brother, who died in WWII.  That sweet little home sheltered Rose as she grew up and then it sheltered her husband and their children.  But to Long Branch, it was blight.  The New Jersey courts put a stop to that.

In addition to setting precedent, IJ’s victory in Long Branch helped inspire a wave of post-Kelo legal reform.  States across the country amended their state constitutions and their eminent domain laws to curtail eminent domain abuse.  Often, these reforms outlawed the sort of “area wide” blight designations that enabled cities like Long Branch to offer developers entire neighborhoods based on ginned up blight designations for a handful of properties.  That practice had been pervasive since 1954 when, you guessed it, the U.S. Supreme Court decided that local governments could demolish non-blighted properties with eminent domain in the name of “urban renewal.”  Thus, the Long Branch win helped attack the very worst Supreme Court decisions and provide homeowners across the country with unprecedented protection from the developer’s wrecking ball.

Carmen and later Fifi passed away in the home they loved so much, and it has since become Lori’s full-time residence.

Reflecting on what the victory meant to her and her neighbors, Lori said, “It has been almost 12 years since our victory and the neighborhood has changed, with many new homes alongside the old ones.  But the changes were driven by private choice, and not through government-directed eminent domain and developers.  There’s a whole new generation of children growing up in the neighborhood who will have the same kind of wonderful memories that I grew up with.  I am still in my parent’s one-story corner brick ranch and loving every minute here.  None of this would have been possible without IJ and its supporters.”

Jeff Rowes is an Institute for Justice senior attorney and Scott Bullock is IJ’s president and general counsel.

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