By Scott Bullock
In an important ruling handed down in June, the New Jersey Supreme Court unanimously struck down an attempt by the Borough of Paulsboro, N.J., to “blight” a vacant piece of property, holding that the fact that a piece of land is “not fully productive” cannot be used as a basis for including the property in a so-called blighted area. IJ filed an amicus curiae brief in the Gallenthin v. Borough of Paulsboro case on the side of the property owner.
In its opinion, the court warned of the danger of open-ended blight designations used by the borough in this case and by many other municipalities throughout New Jersey: “Under [the Borough’s] approach, any property that is operated in a less than optimal manner is arguably ‘blighted.’ If such an all-encompassing definition of ‘blight’ were adopted, most property in the State would be eligible for redevelopment.”
The opinion also contains some very helpful language for our case in Long Branch, N.J., where we represent long-time homeowners fighting the condemnation of their homes along the shore. In discussing the level of proof needed by governments in redevelopment cases, the court declared: “[A] municipality must establish a record that contains more than a bland recitation of applicable statutory criteria and a declaration that those criteria are met. Because a redevelopment designation carries serious implications for property owners, the net opinion of an expert is simply too slender a reed on which to rest that determination.”
In declaring the perfectly fine neighborhood that IJ represents in Long Branch “blighted,” the city relied on the very type of bland, conclusory evidence that the Supreme Court in the Gallenthin case declared inadequate. The court’s decision definitely strengthens our argument that Long Branch violated New Jersey law in taking the homes of the residents.
The New Jersey Supreme Court joins other state high courts, including Ohio, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, Maryland and Missouri, in starting to cut back on the abuse of eminent domain and redevelopment powers by local municipalities. In the wake of the Kelo decision, many state supreme courts are revisiting these issues for the first time in decades and increasing judicial oversight of eminent domain. As far as the Institute for Justice is concerned, this is just the latest installment in our decade-long fight against eminent domain abuse. We will continue to defend property owners against eminent domain abuse and bogus blight designations until property rights in this country are once again secure as the Founders intended.
Scott Bullock is an IJ senior attorney.