Arlington, Va.—In orders dated October 31, 2008, the New Jersey Supreme Court declined to hear appeals by both the MTOTSA homeowners and the City of Long Branch. No opinion accompanied the orders. Each side in the long-running dispute over eminent domain abuse in Long Branch asked the New Jersey Supreme Court to review the August decision of the Appellate Division, which ruled that Long Branch’s condemnation of the embattled MTOTSA neighborhood for private development was illegal under the evidence, but sent the case back to the trial court to give Long Branch a limited opportunity to present more evidence. Although the Appellate Division supplied a clear victory to the homeowners, they asked the New Jersey Supreme Court to end the case immediately as it has done in similar cases.
The Supreme Court’s decision not to hear the case does not mean that it has sided with either party. Instead, the high court simply ruled that the case does not yet present an issue requiring the Supreme Court’s intervention. “The Supreme Court decided a major eminent domain abuse case last year in Gallenthin and perhaps concluded that it was too soon to weigh in again without the Long Branch case developing a little more in the trial court,” said Scott Bullock, a senior attorney with the Institute for Justice, which represents most of the MTOTSA homeowners. Peter Wegener of Bathgate, Wegener & Wolf of Lakewood, N.J., also represents the homeowners.
In its August opinion, the Appellate Division ruled that Long Branch could not condemn the homeowners’ homes because the city’s blight designation, which was the basis for taking the homes, was not supported by evidence. On remand, Long Branch must produce evidence of blight from 1996 that it could have used, but did not, in approving the blight designation.
“The burden is entirely on Long Branch,” said Jeff Rowes, a staff attorney with the Institute. “Long Branch cannot manufacture new evidence. It also can’t merely take its old evidence that failed in the appeals court and hand it over to a paid consultant to say there was blight, when, in fact, the appeals court said the city proved no such thing. That’s why we see the appeals court decision as a fatal blow to the city’s case.”
Lori Vendetti, an MTOTSA homeowner and activist, expressed disappointment that the Supreme Court did not end the case when the homeowners won, a remedy the high court granted last year in the Gallenthin case. Vendetti said, “The Supreme Court could have resolved this once and for all, which would not only have protected us, but the American Dream of every homeowner in New Jersey.”
Although vowing to fight until final victory, Vendetti emphasized the willingness of the homeowners to meet with Long Branch so long as eminent domain is completely off the table. “We are ready, willing and able to meet with the mayor to try to resolve this, as he has suggested to the media, but the one nonnegotiable point we have is that we will not give up our homes. They are ours and we have a right to them. If we have to continue our fight in court, so be it. We’re in this for the long haul,” she said.
The most pressing question may not be what Long Branch will do at trial, but whether it will fight at all. As reported by the Asbury Park Press on October 16, 2008, city officials have come to realize that throwing longtime residents out of their cherished homes is not a path the city should continue to follow. At a recent city council meeting, Adam Schneider, mayor of Long Branch, N.J., stated, “enough is enough. . . . You go through it once because it is a critical issue for the city,” Schneider commented of the legal battle over the past few years. “To go through it twice, I have no interest to do that, either as a politician or a lawyer.”
Rowes said, “What the public needs to understand here is that if the city continues this appeal, even after publicly stating that they have no appetite to do so, it is solely because of the private interests of the developers, who now own property in the MTOTSA neighborhood. If it were up to the homeowners and the city, this case would just go away and the homeowners would get to keep what is rightfully theirs.”
The schedule for proceedings in the trial court will likely be established in the next few weeks.