Arlington, Va.—Today, a three-judge panel of the New Jersey Appellate Division unanimously reversed the June 2006 decision of Superior Court Judge Lawrence Lawson, which allowed the city of Long Branch, N.J., to condemn a charming seaside neighborhood known as MTOTSA for a luxury condominium development. This is the latest in a series of major decisions from New Jersey courts, including the Supreme Court, recognizing that state law and the New Jersey Constitution place real limits on the power of government to condemn property for private development.
After explaining how the lower court misapplied the law, the court of appeals found that the city did not provide “substantial evidence” to support its findings of blight.
“The Court basically told the city that if that’s all it has, it can’t take these homes,” said Scott Bullock, a senior attorney with the Institute for Justice, which represents many of the homeowners along with Peter Wegener of Bathgate, Wegener & Wolf in Lakewood, N.J. “It’s too late for the city to manufacture more evidence, so the Court’s ruling is a fatal blow to the city. We are confident the owners will prevail on remand.” The owners will also have the opportunity to show that changing the plan to use eminent domain was illegal.
This ruling builds on, and reinforces, last summer’s landmark New Jersey Supreme Court decision in Gallenthin Realty Development, Inc. v. Borough of Paulsboro, 191 N.J. 344 (2007), in which the state’s high court held that the government cannot declare an area “blighted” and seize property simply because the government wants to engage in economic development.
The entire three-judge panel joined in the decision and wrote, “We agree with appellants that, in light of the principles laid down in Gallenthin, the City did not find actual blight under any subsection of N.J.S.A. 40A:12A-5, that the record lacked substantial evidence that could have supported the New Jersey Constitution’s standard for finding blight, and that the absence of substantial evidence of blight compels reversal.”
The next step in the case will take place in the trial court, where Judge Lawson will hold a hearing. Under today’s ruling, unless the city can produce a secret file containing substantial evidence of blight in the neighborhood, its efforts to bulldoze modest homes for a private developer must fail.
“This victory for the Long Branch homeowners is a victory for property owners across the Garden State, sending a clear message that abusers of eminent domain will be held accountable,” said Bullock.
Lori Vendetti, a longtime MTOTSA homeowner and a leader in the fight to save the neighborhood, said, “This obviously shows that something wasn’t done right. It’s vindication.” Long Branch’s MTOTSA neighborhood is an acronym for the streets Marine Terrace, Ocean Terrace and Seaview Avenue.
“New Jersey courts understand that ‘blight’ and ‘redevelopment’ are often merely smokescreens for taking valuable property from people of modest means and giving it to rich and powerful developers,” said Jeff Rowes, a staff attorney with the Institute for Justice. He added, “Our long-awaited trial will expose the City’s eminent domain abuse as the sham it is.”