Leonia Homeowners and Businesses Form Group to Stop Borough’s “Condemnation Redevelopment Study”

Dan King
Dan King · February 20, 2019

Leonia, N.J.—Today, residents, small-business owners and supporters in Leonia, New Jersey, announced the formation of Leonia United Against Eminent Domain Abuse (“Leonia United”). The new group is dedicated to stopping the abuse of eminent domain—the government’s power to take private property—which would be authorized as part of the borough’s current “condemnation redevelopment study” of their neighborhood. Leonia United seeks to preserve their diverse, long-standing community of residents and small businesses, whose homes and livelihoods are threatened by the borough’s redevelopment plans.

Leonia Mayor Judah Zeigler is spearheading mixed-use “redevelopment” along Fort Lee Road, Grand Avenue and Schor Avenue, where dozens of residents and small businesses currently reside. To facilitate this plan, the borough has commissioned a study to determine whether the area qualifies as a “condemnation redevelopment area”—within which the borough could condemn properties for private development if the owners do not want to sell.

Their properties are not for sale.

Eminent domain is for public use, like building roads and schools—not private development, like replacing a longtime resident’s home with a commercial building or parking lot. For years, residents of this community have cultivated a safe, beautiful and thriving neighborhood, and they do not wish to leave. Authorizing the condemnation of these properties for private development is both immoral and illegal under state law. A New Jersey appeals court reiterated this truth just last week when it ruled against an attempt to use eminent domain to bulldoze a family’s home for redevelopment in Atlantic City.

“In the notice we received, the borough refers to our homes as lots and parcel numbers, but they’re not just lots. They are homes—they are people, they are lives,” said Karen Hannon, a Leonia resident whose home is located in the proposed condemnation area. “I came from Ireland with $200 in my pocket and a dream. It’s more than a house; it’s a home where I’ve made many memories.”

Ms. Hannon is one of the nearly 30 property owners who received a notice from the borough in January, telling them about the plans to begin the condemnation redevelopment study.

“We’ve established our family, faith and cultural roots within our home,” said Godfrey De Silva, who has lived with his wife, Ayomi, and two daughters in their Grand Avenue home since 1997. “We’ve raised our daughters here, who attended the local school system, and created life-lasting memories. The time, money and emotional investment put into our home can never be seized for the personal needs of anyone.”

Leonia United has created a Facebook group, https://www.facebook.com/LeoniaUnitedAEDA/, to educate the public and gather support for residents like Karen and Godfrey.

The group is working with the Institute for Justice (IJ), a national public interest, civil liberties law firm dedicated to stopping the abuse of eminent domain. IJ represented Susette Kelo and her neighbors before the U.S. Supreme Court in Kelo v. New London and has successfully litigated on behalf of property owners in Long Branch and twice in Atlantic City.

Today, the Institute for Justice submitted a statement to the borough council, asking it to abandon the condemnation redevelopment study plans.

“Home and business owners in Leonia are right to be concerned,” said Andrew Meleta, activism coordinator at the Institute for Justice. “Designating these well-kept properties as ‘blighted’ and subject to eminent domain is an abuse of state law. If the borough can get away with it, then nobody’s home or business in Leonia is safe—because anyone’s property could be designated as ‘blighted’ and taken, simply to generate more tax dollars for the borough.”

“The borough has no lawful basis to declare this a ‘condemnation redevelopment area,’” said Bill Potter, a partner at Potter and Dickson, a leading law firm in New Jersey that defends property owners from eminent domain abuse. “The council should revoke its resolution initiating the study now—saving everyone, including residents and taxpayers, the cost and stress of potentially prolonged litigation that the borough will ultimately lose, especially in light of recent court decisions in our state.”