By Robert McNamara
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 for 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 every inch of the building represents Charlie’s memories of his parents and family, all the way from the roof he used to work on with his father to the front steps he maintains with the help of his son-in-law today.
But all of this—the house, the memories, everything—will be destroyed if a New Jersey state agency called the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority (or “CRDA”) has its way. CRDA wants to take the Birnbaums’ longtime family home as part of a proposed redevelopment plan surrounding the Revel Casino—a new luxury resort that has filed for bankruptcy twice in as many years.
But the kicker is what CRDA plans to do with Charlie’s property: absolutely nothing. It has no plan for the property and it even admits as much. It just wants to take the home, bulldoze it and then think about what kind of development goes there.
It is difficult to overstate how sweeping CRDA’s claims to power are. It claims, quite literally, that it should be allowed to take any piece of land in Atlantic City it wants, for any reason—or, in Charlie’s case, for no reason at all. The problem is that for too long local courts have allowed the agency to get away with whatever it wants, which has led the agency to start acting like there is nothing to stand in its way. While the New Jersey Supreme Court increased protections for property owners against eminent domain abuse in 2007, it has not yet considered a case about the scope of CRDA’s power.
That is where IJ comes in. On May 20, we stood up in court with Charlie to defend the simple proposition that property rights are sacred and they cannot be cast aside simply based on the bare assertion of self-interested state officials.
The results so far have been heartening. CRDA has believed from day one that it is entitled to take the Birnbaums’ home today and knock it down tomorrow, with no interference from the courts. It even started issuing eviction notices to tenants in the buildings it was planning to acquire months before the case went to court. But IJ’s powerful legal arguments—coupled with a wave of media attention and outrage—have stopped this ill-conceived and illegal land grab in its tracks.
Charlie’s case is just one example of a resurgence in eminent domain abuse undertaken by lawless, land-hungry bureaucrats who are determined to evade any limits on their power. As regular readers of Liberty & Law will remember, the U.S. Supreme Court’s disastrous ruling in Kelo v. City of New London caused an overwhelming, nationwide wave of resistance to eminent domain abuse. Forty-four states changed their laws to make eminent domain abuse more difficult, and almost a dozen state courts issued important decisions that protected property owners. The message was unequivocal: Americans would no longer stand for this kind of abuse of property rights.
Unfortunately, New Jersey state officials seem to be part of the stubborn group of bureaucrats who refuse to listen to that message. IJ is committed to standing by Charlie and his family until the whole state hears us loud and clear.
Robert McNamara is an IJ senior attorney.