After Long Wait, Long Branch Homeowners Get Their Day in Court

August 1, 2008

After Long Wait, Long Branch Homeowners Get Their Day in Court

By Scott Bullock

Long Branch, N.J., homeowners rally together in front of the state appeals court where the Institute for Justice argued against eminent domain for private gain. Speaking at the megaphone is IJ client Lori Vendetti. She is joined in the front row to the right by IJ Senior Attorney Scott Bullock. IJ Staff Attorney Jeff Rowes stands to the right of Bullock. A decision in the case is expected in the coming months.

Denise Hoagland and her daughters protest the use of eminent domain that would replace their seaside home with high-end condos through a private development project.

It took nearly two years of nerve-wracking waiting, but Long Branch, N.J., homeowners fighting eminent domain abuse finally got their day in the state appellate court on May 14.

In her dissent in IJ’s Kelo case, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor noted that, under the Supreme Court’s ruling, a city could take any Motel 6 for a Ritz-Carlton or any home for a shopping mall. The city of Long Branch added a new and possibly even more outrageous variation to Justice O’Connor’s examples. Long Branch is taking homes for other homes, condemning working-class residences to replace them with million-dollar condominiums for the wealthy.

Approximately a dozen homeowners have fought back against these unconstitutional takings. After working for years with the homeowners through our grassroots Castle Coalition, IJ took over the appeal in this case after a June 2006 trial court ruling that rubber-stamped the city government’s decision to hand over these cherished homes to a private developer. In a two-and-a-half hour argument, the three-judge panel of the appellate court examined many aspects of the case and asked probing questions of each side. Facing the judges was a packed courtroom, every seat filled with the homeowners and their supporters and many others jamming both aisles. In contrast, the only people there in support of the city were elected officials that voted for the takings and people who were paid for being there—the city’s lawyers.

The Institute for Justice asked the court to throw out the city’s condemnations or, at a minimum, to send the case back to the trial court for the presentation of evidence on why bulldozing the neighborhood violates the laws and Constitution of New Jersey. Thankfully, although New Jersey cities are some of the worst abusers of eminent domain in the nation, the state courts there are finally starting to protect the rights of home and small business owners.

Before the argument, a rally was held in support of the homeowners. The most moving remarks came from the daughter of IJ client Anna DeFaria. Anna had lived in her home in Long Branch for more than 40 years and, like several of the property owners there, she was forced to spend her golden years worrying over whether the government was going to take her small, immaculately kept home.

Tragically, Anna passed away in November 2007 from cancer at the age of 82. Less than two weeks before her passing, I was visiting with the homeowners in Long Branch. Anna was too sick to attend the meeting but, just as we were wrapping up, Anna’s daughter ran across the street and told me that Anna wanted to see me to find out how the case was going and to look for a little while at her beloved ocean from her front door. Although I spent just a few minutes with her, it was a meeting I will never forget, as Anna told me, even in her weakened condition, that she wanted to keep fighting for her home and the homes of her neighbors.

Anna’s daughters, holding pictures of Anna and another senior citizen who had passed away during the court battle, Al Viviano, told folks at the rally that the family was keeping the home and respecting their mother’s wishes by continuing on with the appeal.

IJ will not stop fighting until all of the homes in this neighborhood are protected.

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