Typically, land taken by eminent domain is used by a municipal government to build schools, parks, and roads. But in nearly every state, including New Jersey, the power can also be used to take private property to transfer it to another developer for new development.
The matter has become quite controversial in Hudson County where cities take over private businesses and homes to foster redevelopment.
Sponsored by local assemblyman The bills, which are co-sponsored by state Assemblyman Louis M. Manzo (D-31st Dist.), have been approved by the Assembly by a vote of 50 to 18, with eight abstentions.
Sister bills are now being debated in to the state Senate.
"I want to discourage the use of eminent domain, but if eminent domain is used, I want it to sting the redeveloper, not the people who are being displaced," Manzo said. "In the end, I want the burden of proof to fall on the government and the redeveloper as to why it is needed, not having the victims prove it is not needed."
Area must show 'blight' He said that areas such as Newark and Jersey City where redevelopment is sorely needed would be least affected by the bills, as the new regulations are meant to protect areas elsewhere in the state where eminent domain is not needed.
"These won't affect any area that is truly blighted," he said. He wants to protect some downtown areas that are being targeted simply to remove existing businesses and residences to favor specific redevelopers and increase property tax income.
Many of the existing redevelopment zones would be exempt from the new regulations, depending on where they are in the process.
He added that in many cases, redevelopment can be done without the use of eminent domain, but when it is done, he wants the people losing their property to get fair value and a fair hearing, "I'm trying to get back to the rights we had when the Declaration of Independence was signed," Manzo said. "The two basic principles I will fight to keep through the state Senate hearings is that victims must be property compensated and relocated, and this includes the tenants."
Support from Public Advocate According to state Public Advocate Ronald K. Chen, these bills revise the definition of "blight" so that it is more clear and objective, and appropriately restricts the ability of municipalities to use eminent domain for private redevelopment to those areas that are truly blighted, as the New Jersey Constitution requires.
Chen added that the bill also improves the redevelopment process so that it is more fair, open, and transparent. "Under this legislation, tenants and property owners would receive adequate notice. There would be more meaningful opportunities for public participation and redevelopment plans would be more comprehensive and specific," he said. "Perhaps most importantly, property owners would have a meaningful chance to appeal the blight designation, and the burden of proof would rest squarely with the municipality."
A long road Manzo said a misinformation campaign has been launched already to derail the passage of these bills, but he said places like the Journal Square redevelopment zone in Jersey City would not be negatively impacted.
"These bills nearly didn't make it through committee," Manzo said, predicting a significant battle in the state Senate, where lobbyists for developers are already on the move to stop or amend the laws significantly.
Manzo called it fine-tuning of a law that has been abused over the last few years.
While he predicts a hard fight in the senate, Manzo said the reforms are needed in order to protect the rights of property owners.
"While the victims of eminent domain say my bills are too weak," he said, "no bill is perfect, and at the day when the state Senate is through with them, those people will wish my bills are passed."
Redevelopment in Hoboken In recent years, redevelopment has been an often-used tool in Hoboken. Redevelopment is the process of taking a blighted area, creating special zoning for it, and seeking developers and contractors to build according to a pre-approved plan.
The Northwest Redevelopment plan was created in 1998 to breathe new life into a 20-block area. Now many blocks have new condo projects, most built by a single development group. Some have complained that the city uses its power of development too liberally.
Earlier this year, the City Council nearly passed an ordinance that would have allowed the city to "purchase or condemn" a half-block piece of property at 10th and Grand streets - including two thriving businesses - so that private developers can build condos there.
The block in question included two businesses, U-Store-It and Kwitman & Son. Kwitman & Son has produced drapes and other home furnishings for the past 23 years. The company employs several dozen workers.
After an outpouring of public outrage over the proposed seizure, the City Council declined to vote on the matter. Because of the city's refusal to act, the matter will be heading to court, as the developers, Ursa Development and Tarragon Development Corp, have sued the city for breach of contract. They have argued that the city is breaching the 1998 Redevelopment Plan and the subsequent 2001 Developers Agreement, which named Ursa/Tarragon as the developer of the northwest redevelopment site.
Also, at a recent City Council meeting, Hoboken's governing body voted to create the Southwest "Industrial Transition" District Redevelopment Study Area, which encompasses 13 acres bounded by Paterson Avenue/Observer Highway to the north and Jersey City on the south and west.
Mayor David Roberts has said that the Southwest Redevelopment Area will be different from the Northwest Redevelopment Area, where a single development group was designated for large swaths of land. Roberts said he would consider condemnation only if that land would be used for public open space.
Sweeping changes to eminent domain proposed Assemblyman Louis M. Manzo (D-31st Dist.) is sponsoring four bills which would restrict how and when eminent domain can be used.
His first bill would: · Limit the allowance in a redevelopment zone for unblighted areas to 20 percent of the total. No limitation exists under current law.
· Require a public hearing be held by the governing body prior to sending a redevelopment plan to the Planning Board if the property is above a certain size.
· Increase the number of necessary criteria required for redevelopment from one of eight to three of eight standards.
· Prohibit a redeveloper from funding the investigation of a potential redevelopment area.
· Require hearings to explain the project in language ordinary residents can understand, not jargon. · Increase the notification requirements from merely posting a newspaper ad about the meeting to specifically advising owners and tenants that the hearing could involve the use of eminent domain. This notification must be done 14 days or more before the hearing.
· Expand the hearing process to allow witnesses, testimony under oath and submission of questions to the Planning Board.
· Planning Board would be required to look at possible alternative sites or strategies before recommending the use of eminent domain, and must explain the reasons why no other way is possible. · Requires that a designation be made by ordinance rather than resolution by the governing body.
· Those who receive the public notice must be informed of the decision and of their right to appeal, stating the deadlines.
A second bill would require a potential developer to pay the value of a property after redevelopment, not the blighted value.
And a third bill would require a competitive bid process for a redevelopment zone that involves 20 percent or more of municipal or governmental property. This bill would also establish a ranking system for pre-qualifying bidders for redevelopment. Property must clearly be identified as to what faces eminent domain.
A fourth bill addresses some of the issues involved in relocating those displaced by eminent domain. This bill also requires a detailed explanation for each parcel's being designated and why there is no alternative.