Long Branch Homeowners Ask Appeals Court To Overturn Condemnation of their Homes

John Kramer
John Kramer · February 8, 2007

Arlington, Va.—In a legal brief filed this week, the homeowners in Long Branch’s embattled MTOTSA neighborhood asked the New Jersey appellate court to overturn last summer’s superior court decision approving the condemnation of their beloved homes. In what has become ground-zero in the nationwide fight against eminent domain abuse, Long Branch is trying to seize the well-kept beachfront homes of senior citizens and hard-working families to give their land to a private developer so it can build luxury condominiums for the wealthy.

Eminent domain is the power of government to take property for traditional public uses like roads and schools.

Scott Bullock, senior attorney with the Arlington, Va.-based Institute for Justice, which represents the homeowners, said, “The brief we filed this week with the appeals court explains why Long Branch’s outrageous land-grab violates both the U.S. and New Jersey Constitutions, and a variety of state laws.”

The 65-page legal brief detailed why the condemnations are illegal:

  • The U.S. and New Jersey Constitutions restrict eminent domain to true public purposes, not a scheme to make rich private parties even richer.
  • The Local Housing and Redevelopment Law does not allow Long Branch to use a sham blight designation as an excuse for taking away people’s homes.
  • The redevelopment contracts unconstitutionally gave away Long Branch’s power of eminent domain to the private developer.
  • The condemnations are unnecessary because MTOTSA is not blighted and the beachfront has otherwise been entirely redeveloped.
  • City attorneys with financial conflicts of interest tainted the redevelopment process.
  • Long Branch failed to negotiate in good faith with the homeowners.

The case is before the appellate division because on June 22, 2006, the Superior Court of Monmouth County ruled that Long Branch was authorized to condemn the homes on the basis of nothing more than the papers the city filed with its condemnation complaints.

Discussing the brief, Jeff Rowes, a staff attorney with the Institute for Justice, said, “We asked the appellate court to dismiss the complaints and let the homeowners live their lives in the homes that mean so much to them and their families. In the alternative, we asked that this case be sent back down to the trial court to give the homeowners a real opportunity to gather evidence and defend their homes.”

Rowes added, “The evidence shows that Long Branch cut corners, ignored the law and flouted the Constitution. It’s time for the appellate court to hold the city accountable.”

Bullock said, “The home should be a sanctuary, especially for senior citizens in their golden years like MTOTSA residents Anna DeFaria and Rose LaRosa. It shouldn’t be a poker chip that cities like Long Branch play when making big deals with billion-dollar private developers.”

Earlier this week, the Institute received the sad word that one of MTOTSA’s most colorful and beloved residents, 93-year-old Al Viviano, passed away. Mr. Viviano, a former blacksmith, had roots in the neighborhood stemming back to 1931.

“Al was a sweet but absolutely determined fellow,” said Bullock. “Despite his age and health problems, he never missed an event or meeting organized to save his neighborhood. It is disgusting that the city threatened Mr. Viviano with eviction from his home at a time when he should have been doing nothing but relaxing and enjoying his much-deserved retirement in peace. And while it is sad that he did not live to see a court ultimately vindicate his and his neighbors’ rights, he passed away exactly where he wanted to: sleeping in his bed, in his home.

Quoted in today’s Star-Ledger, Viviano’s daughter, Estelle Toscano, said, “He won. My father won because he died in his own house.” As the Star-Ledger reported, “What drove Viviano is what drives most of his neighbors: a deep love of Long Branch and a firm belief that government should not have the right to take a home indiscriminately.”

In yet another ridiculous attempt to suppress the truth about what is going on in Long Branch, the city filed motions in late January to have the New Jersey Public Advocate Ronald Chen’s friend of the court brief stricken from the appeal. Coming off an unsuccessful effort late last year to have the Institute for Justice kicked off the case, Long Branch is now arguing that Mr. Chen’s brief inappropriately addresses issues not encompassed in the decision of the Monmouth County superior court.

The Public Advocate is a state-level office created by Governor Corzine in March 2006. The mission of the Public Advocate is to work on behalf of citizens to make government more accountable.

Bullock, who has written many friend of the court briefs for the Institute in other cases, said, “The Public Advocate did exactly what he was supposed to do: offer the court expert insight that the parties to this case may lack. Long Branch just doesn’t like what Mr. Chen had to say, particularly his conclusion that the condemnation of MTOTSA is wrong.”

The Institute will oppose the city’s motion in a brief to be filed next week. Rowes noted, “Long Branch didn’t want a trial on these condemnations in the superior court, it tried to exclude the Institute for Justice, and now it’s trying to keep out the Public Advocate. The city doesn’t want the public or the courts to know what’s really going on because what’s really going on is a terrible injustice.”