Blight? Same Story Different Town

October 1, 2006

October 2006

Blight?Same Story Different Town

By Jeff Rowes

IJ client and Long Branch resident Lori Vendetti with Chip Mellor, Scott Bullock and Jeff Rowes announce that IJ has joined the homeowners to appeal the City’s bogus blight designation. Scott Bullock (below) states, “Here, the government is taking poorer folks’ homes to build homes for the wealthy. This unlawful and unconscionable land-grab must be stopped.”

In a state already notorious for eminent domain abuse, Long Branch, N.J., is distinguishing itself as the worst of the worst. The City is trying to seize beautiful beachfront homes in a middle-class neighborhood called MTOTSA (an acronym for the streets Marine Terrace, Ocean Terrace and Seaview Avenue), so it can hand them over to private developers who plan to make tens of millions of dollars building fancy condos for the wealthy. Just as it has done in so many other cases, the Institute for Justice has joined the homeowners in their fight to save their cherished homes.

The City of Long Branch tries to justify this land-grab by claiming that it is curing urban “blight.” The only problem, however, is that MTOTSA is not, nor has it ever been, “blighted.” Instead, it is a charming collection of architecturally unique cottages and bungalows, some dating to the World War II era. Many of the homes have been in the same families for generations. Today, as throughout its colorful history, MTOTSA is a melting pot, home to everyone from children to retirees in their nineties.

As in any thriving neighborhood, these residents are the heart of MTOTSA. Everyone who visits Long Branch sooner or later bumps into Al Viviano, a 93-year-old retired blacksmith and 60-year Long Branch resident who cheerfully runs errands on his scooter. Or you might see 12-year-old Daisy Hoagland, who won a school essay contest writing about eminent domain abuse, playing with her two little sisters in their yard. Perhaps the most poignant story belongs to 80-year-old Rose LaRosa, who still lives in the home her father bought in 1944 as a tribute to her brother who urged his father to buy the home shortly before he perished in fierce combat in the skies of Europe.

Unfortunately, in Long Branch, as in so many other cities across the country, the rights of people like Al, Daisy and Rose do not count because the City cannot tax them very heavily and developers cannot make big profits off them. Once these facts are understood, it becomes obvious that condemning MTOTSA has nothing to do with eliminating so-called blight and everything to do with the political and financial ambitions of those who stand to gain from destroying this beautiful neighborhood. Long Branch is using government force to replace modest homes with expensive ones and working-class families and retirees with richer people from big cities like Newark and New York.

The MTOTSA homeowners recently suffered a setback when the Monmouth County Court approved the condemnations without even affording the homeowners an opportunity to present evidence in defense of their homes. IJ has now joined them and their local attorney in the appeal and we will stand by them until we have vindicated their fundamental right to be secure in the homes they love. As we successfully did in Norwood, Ohio, we plan to argue that the state constitution provides greater property rights protection than does its federal counterpart under the dreadful Kelo decision. By advancing property rights in Long Branch—which has attracted nationwide attention, most recently on the cover of Parade magazine—we will not only save our clients’ homes, but set yet another important precedent for others in New Jersey and beyond who are fighting their own battles against eminent domain abuse.Jeff Rowes is an IJ staff attorney.

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