Atlantic City Man Fights to Save Family Home From State Agency’s Eminent Domain Abuse

J. Justin Wilson
J. Justin Wilson · May 20, 2014


Arlington, Va.—Charlie Birnbaum’s parents survived the Holocaust and, after moving to the U.S., survived many hurricanes in their Atlantic City home. But their beloved three-story walk-up apartment building within sight of the ocean and Atlantic City’s famed Boardwalk may not survive a government agency bent on taking it for the benefit of a recently bankrupt casino. Even worse, the government agency condemning the Birnbaum’s home can’t say what it wants to do with the land; it just knows it wants Charlie and his tenants out.
New Jersey’s Casino Reinvestment Development Authority (CRDA) is trying to use eminent domain to seize Charlie’s property as part of a “mixed-use development” project to “complement” the recently bankrupt Revel Casino. CRDA, however, has no concrete plans to do anything in particular with Charlie’s property—other than get rid of it. CRDA does not actually need Charlie’s property to develop the surrounding neighborhood.
On Tuesday, May 20, at 10:30 a.m., Charlie and the Institute for Justice (IJ) will hold a press conference in front of Charlie’s home at 311 Oriental Avenue in Atlantic City to announce their effort to challenge CRDA’s eminent domain abuse.
At 1:30 p.m. on that same day, Charlie and his attorneys will appear in the Superior Court of New Jersey for Atlantic County (at 1201 Bacharach Blvd. in Atlantic City) to defend his family’s home in court against this unconstitutional taking.
Adding insult to injury, CRDA has actually filed papers asking the court to deny Charlie’s right to be represented by the attorneys of his choosing in this case.
“CRDA’s attempt to prevent property owners from effectively defending themselves with pro bono lawyers demonstrates both how little confidence the agency has in its own legal arguments and how much contempt CRDA has for the rights of the people it is trying to displace,” said Institute for Justice Senior Attorney Bob McNamara, IJ’s lead attorney representing Charlie Birnbaum.
“Eminent domain has traditionally been understood as the power of government to take private property for a public use, like a courthouse or a public school—something the public would own and use,” said IJ Litigation Director Dana Berliner, who in the 1990s defeated CRDA’s attempt to seize an elderly widow’s home and turn it over to Donald Trump for use as a limousine parking lot. “But some state agencies, like CRDA, abuse eminent domain to take property for purely private development. There has been a nationwide backlash against this kind of eminent domain abuse in recent years and New Jersey courts have been among those to restrict the use of eminent domain, but New Jersey officials seem to be among the last to hear about it.”
“For too long, CRDA has been allowed to get away with whatever it wants, but that’s about to stop with this legal challenge,” said IJ Attorney Dan Alban, who also represents Charlie Birnbaum.
Charlie—a professional piano tuner for the casinos—now lives in Hammonton, N.J., and keeps the ground-floor apartment as a piano studio devoted to the memory of his parents; the top two floors are given over to longtime tenants who pay below-market rents. Charlie lovingly maintains the historic brick home—which was built in 1921—keeping it in excellent condition.
CRDA attempts to justify its land grab by pointing to the supposed need to redevelop the neighborhood. But pure economic development is not a public use, and CRDA does not need Charlie’s property to redevelop the area surrounding the Revel casino. Indeed, many of the lots in the neighborhood are empty and are for sale, and CRDA is free to purchase them. Charlie’s property, a sturdy and well-maintained brick townhouse located at the very edge of the proposed redevelopment area, is simply not necessary to develop the neighborhood.
In June 2012, CRDA approved the “South Inlet Mixed Use Development Project,” which is supposedly intended to “complement the new Revel Casino and assist with the demands created by the resort.” The project authorizes CRDA to use eminent domain to seize Charlie’s property along with 61 other parcels, but there is nothing in the project that requires the seized properties to be used for anything in particular. Indeed, CRDA’s intent to use eminent domain to seize Charlie’s property is the only aspect of the plan that is concrete. Documents released by CRDA indicate that there is no substantive project or plan beyond the plan to condemn the properties. CRDA does not even have a formal development plan in place. Rather, it appears that CRDA only has a nonbinding “conceptual” plan—proposed by Revel—that could serve as a possible template for future development of the area. This conceptual plan includes “restaurants, specialty stores, boutiques and residential housing for rent and purchase”—all private uses, if they come to fruition at all. But there is nothing that indicates what exactly Charlie’s property would be used for and nothing that requires CRDA to use it for anything described in the conceptual plans. In fact, there is nothing that requires CRDA to use Charlie’s property for anything at all.
“CRDA isn’t taking Charlie’s property because they need it for anything; they’re just taking it because they think they can get away with it,” explained McNamara. “That is not just wrong; it is unconstitutional.”
The Institute for Justice is the national law firm for liberty. IJ has earned the reputation as a formidable foe of eminent domain abuse. Defending Charlie Birnbaum is part of the Institute for Justice’s commitment to strategic litigation that will help restore judicial protection for private property rights. The Institute for Justice has litigated eminent domain cases nationwide, successfully preserving the rights and properties of the politically and financially disenfranchised. IJ’s victories over eminent domain abuse in New Jersey include:
Casino Reinvestment Development Authority v. Banin—In a classic David versus Goliath battle, the Institute for Justice scored a major victory for property rights in July 1998 when the New Jersey Superior Court ruled that CRDA could not use eminent domain to seize widow Vera Coking’s home of 37 years and give it to Donald Trump for his private development.
City of Long Branch v. Brower—In 2010, the Institute for Justice helped defeat the city of Long Branch’s attempt to condemn an entire beachfront neighborhood.