Institute for Justice · February 28, 2017

Emerson, NJ—Small-business owners and residents in Emerson are announcing the formation of a new organization, Stop Emerson Eminent Domain (SEED), dedicated to stopping the use of eminent domain in the downtown area (the “Central Business District,” or CBD). Earlier this month, property owners met with the Institute for Justice (IJ), a national public interest, civil liberties law firm and the nation’s leading advocate against eminent domain abuse. Together, they are demanding that the borough rescind all redevelopment resolutions targeting the CBD and stop any further study and consideration of the area for condemnation.

Emerson has designated block 419 a “condemnation redevelopment area” and is studying surrounding properties—originally 82 property owners were identified and put on notice—for a similar designation. In these areas, the borough can condemn properties using eminent domain and hand the land over to their chosen private, for-profit developer, JMF Properties. The borough claims it is trying to meet its affordable housing obligations and contain development in the downtown area; meanwhile, the developer’s agreement explicitly says it will explore alternative sites to accommodate affordable housing (see sec. 4.03.1).

Today, the Institute for Justice sent a statement to the Borough Council, requesting that they rescind the block 419 designation, decommission further study of the Central Business District, and disavow the use of eminent domain for private development.

“The borough wants development at any cost, and will violate my rights as a hard-working small-business owner to get it,” said Dan O’Brien, owner of Academy Electrical Contractors, Inc. “They’re using affordable housing as a smokescreen for this development, and they’re abusing the state’s redevelopment law in the process.” Dan moved his business to Emerson five years ago and poured $150,000 into his property with hopes of one day handing it over to his children after he retires. “I’ve helped countless people in this borough with their electrical needs. I have 14 employees, half of whom are residents of this borough—if I lose my business, these Emerson residents lose their jobs. Our properties clearly aren’t blighted, and they are not for sale,” Dan continued.

Following public outcry, the borough passed a resolution last week removing 24 properties from further consideration, yet re-affirmed its intention to study the remaining properties.

“We invested heavily in Emerson at a time of economic downturn. Our property is essential for our small business, my livelihood and retirement. It’s a horror to watch eminent domain crush other small businesses, homes, and lives,” said Todd Bradbury, owner of Bradbury Landscape in Emerson. “No court ordered this—it was an elective move by the governing body. We are not going to sit back and watch the next block fall. Just imagine if this happened to you.”

The borough also recently sent a letter to Emerson residents intended to “dispel the rumors and misinformation that may be circulating.” In it, the borough argues that they are under court mandate to provide more affordable housing. The borough uses the fear of “intense and overly dense development in inappropriate locations…including in single family residential neighborhoods” to rally support for condemning properties in the downtown area. But the agreement with the developer clearly states they are in no way bound to build affordable housing in the CBD.

Former Emerson Borough Councilman Kenneth Hoffman released a letter today responding to last week’s letter from the borough.

“I came to Emerson in 1977, when I was 24 years old. Since then, I’ve built two buildings and renovated two on Chestnut Street, with no tax breaks, no special treatment, without a dime, nothing—I worked hard seven days a week, often until 1am,” said small-business owner Bob Petrow, who owns Star Properties. “I’ve contributed to many community causes. Now I depend on these buildings that I bought, built and maintained to sustain me. They’re my retirement. Now all that’s threatened.”

New Jersey’s Local Redevelopment and Housing Law is prone to abuse. While “blight” and “redevelopment” laws are supposedly intended to cure real threats to public health and safety, they are often used to simply facilitate the transfer of perfectly fine homes and small businesses to wealthy developers. The block 419 study relies on the state’s vague “blight” criteria as a pretext to hand the properties over to JMF Properties, claiming the area meets the vague “obsolete” and “underutilized” conditions.

The Institute for Justice, which met with Emerson’s property owners, represented Susette Kelo and her neighbors before the U.S. Supreme Court in Kelo v. City of New London, and successfully represented property owners in Long Branch and Atlantic City in their challenges to illegal redevelopment plans.

“Eminent domain is for public use, things like roads and schools—not private development,” said Christina Walsh, director of activism and coalitions at IJ. “This isn’t about building affordable housing downtown. The development agreement clearly says the affordable housing can be built elsewhere. This is about condemning the property of hard-working small-business and home owners for a private developer. Everyone in Emerson should be concerned about the borough’s actions—because if it can happen to block 419, it can happen to anyone.”

“Mayor Lamatina recently said in a media interview that ‘downtown sorely needs new blood,’” said Toni Plantamura-Rossi, who owns the Dairy Queen on Kinderkamack Road, which was built in 1952. “But they’re attempting to squeeze small-business owners out of the borough. We’re part of a small-business franchise and are proud to be blue-collar workers. We all need electricians and auto-mechanics…what’s wrong with these services if we’re helping everyone’s needs? When did building a successful local business that caters to the community become something to be looked down upon and not patted on the back?”

For more information, please contact Stop Emerson Eminent Domain at [email protected]. SEED’s Facebook page, available here, will also provide updates to the public.

UPDATE: On Monday, March 6, a property owner in block 419 filed a lawsuit challenging the borough’s redevelopment efforts. The complaint is available here.