Arlington, Va.—The Long Branch, N.J., property owners are finally safe at home. After years of battling eminent domain for a developer’s private gain, Long Branch’s MTOTSA homeowners declared victory with today’s announcement that eminent domain actions filed against the homeowners have been withdrawn and that the city and the developer must take steps to restore the neighborhood damaged by eminent domain abuse.
“Today’s agreement finally ends this government-created nightmare that was imposed upon these Long Branch homeowners,” said Scott Bullock, a senior attorney at the Institute for Justice which, along with noted New Jersey eminent domain lawyers Peter H. Wegener and William Ward, represented the homeowners. “With this agreement, the neighborhood can be restored to the kind of wonderful community it was before the city and the developer targeted it. These modest, proudly-maintained homes will no longer be threatened by the bulldozers.”
“At long last, we can get our homes, lives and neighborhood back,” said Lori Vendetti, who owns one of the homes across the street from the house her parents bought more than 40 years ago—a home where her mother still resides. “I am so glad my father and the other seniors in the neighborhood were able to live out their days in their homes, but I wish they could have been here to see this wonderful conclusion.” Lori’s father, Carmen Vendetti, passed away in June of this year while still battling to protect the home the former truck driver built for his family.
Under the terms of the agreement announced today, the city must dismiss the eminent domain actions filed against the MTOTSA homeowners in 2005. (MTOTSA is an acronym for the streets Marine Terrace, Ocean Terrace and Seaview Avenue, the neighborhood targeted for eminent domain for private gain.) Just as important, the order also provides that the city is barred from taking the homes in the future under the current or any subsequent redevelopment plan. The agreement further provides that the homeowners can take advantage of tax abatements, just as the city-designated developer was permitted to do, for reinvesting in their properties. The city is also paying a portion of the attorneys’ fees for the homeowners.
Importantly, the agreement imposes obligations on the city and the developer to improve conditions in a neighborhood that was neglected because the city and its hand-picked developer originally wanted it entirely demolished to build upscale condominiums. The city must now repave and repair all the streets in the neighborhood and repair long-neglected neighborhood street lights.
The developer must also clean up the damage it caused to the neighborhood. The developer-owned homes in MTOTSA were abandoned and boarded-up, causing decline and posing safety and crime problems. Under the agreement, the developer must start work on demolition of the abandoned homes immediately, with all the developer-owned homes being demolished by April 2, 2010. The developer plans on eventually building new homes in the area. The court will maintain jurisdiction over the agreement to ensure that its terms are enforced.
“I know my mom is looking down on us today and smiling,” said Maryann Allegro, one of the daughters of Anna DeFaria, who also lived in the MTOTSA neighborhood for more than 40 years and who passed away in 2008. Mrs. DeFaria fought tenaciously to keep her house, a battle that her family continued after her death. “Her little home meant the world to her and we were determined to make sure that it stayed in our family,” Allegro added. Many of the homes in the neighborhood have been owned by families for generations.
“This agreement is a wonderful victory for the MTOTSA homeowners but the larger battle against eminent domain abuse in New Jersey must continue,” noted Institute for Justice Staff Attorney Jeff Rowes. “No homeowner in this state should have to go through what the folks in Long Branch did, but unless the New Jersey legislature acts, eminent domain abuse in the Garden State will continue.” Although 43 states have reformed their eminent domain laws in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s infamous decision in Kelo v. City of New London, the New Jersey Legislature has done nothing to better protect property owners against eminent domain for private gain.
Although New Jersey politicians have failed to act, the New Jersey courts have started to rein in eminent domain abuse. In August 2008, a three-judge panel of the New Jersey Appellate Division unanimously reversed the 2006 decision of Superior Court Judge Lawrence Lawson, which had allowed Long Branch to condemn MTOTSA for a luxury condominium development. After the case was sent back to the trial court and the city announced that it was willing to drop the eminent domain actions, the parties began discussing how to resolve the remaining issues in the case, leading to the agreement announced today.
The actions of the New Jersey courts follow a broader trend in state courts since the Kelo decision. While many state supreme courts follow the lead of the U.S. Supreme Court, the exact opposite has happened with regard to the use of eminent domain for private development. Since Kelo, four state supreme courts have so far rejected the decision while not one has adopted it.