"Hands off my property,
The ten Commanants [sic] says 'THOU SHALT NOT STEAL!'
Support the campaign to stop Eminent Domain here
If they can steal mine, yours could be next.
Golden Cicada Tavern"
The situation facing the Golden Cicada's owner, Cheng "Terry" Tan, almost seemed to have reached biblical proportions. This past July, the Golden Cicada was taken by the Jersey City Redevelopment Agency through eminent domain.
Eminent domain is the power to take private property for public use by the state or municipality, as long as they provide just compensation.
But the agency took Tan's property in order to grant it to St. Peter's Prep High School on Grand Street, a few blocks away. The school needs his property in order to lengthen their athletic field, located directly behind the bar. They need seven yards more in order to be a regulation field for holding varsity matches, rather than just for practice. The field was built in 2003 and completed in 2004.
But can a government do that for a parochial school?
Tan's situation has been well documented in the media and will be further spotlighted by a hearing, which was rescheduled from this past Friday (Nov. 4) to Friday, Nov. 18 in State Superior Court in Jersey City.
The Jersey City Redevelopment Agency hopes that a ruling will allow them to continue the eminent domain process.
That would mean making a final offer price for purchasing the property that Tan would have to accept.
Tan will be represented by volunteer lawyers with the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, who plan to argue that the Redevelopment Authority's actions violated a clause of the United States Constitution. The government may only take a property owner's land if it is for a "public use."
"I have no problem with St. Peter's Prep. I have a problem with government taking property from private party A and giving it to private party B," said Tan. "That's a violation of the Constitution, and that's just wrong."
But that hearing may not happen due to an annoucement late Friday by Mayor Jerramiah Healy.
On Friday evening, the Associated Press reported that the city will no longer go through with the taking of the Golden Cicada by eminent domain.
Healy issued a written statement saying, "There are instances when the city's taking of private property for public purpose is appropriate, but this is not one of those instances."
Tan, when contacted Saturday, said he only found out about Healy's announcement during a 11 p.m. newscast Friday night, and had not heard from the Mayor's office but realized that it was the weekend and would probably find out more during the week. But he is not exactly elated.
"My property is useless. It is still zoned as open space by the [Jersey City] Redevelopment Agency, which means I can't develop on it," said Tan.
Tan couldn't offer any more comment until he met with his lawyers during the week.
Prep officials could not be reached for comment on Healy's announcement. The Jersey City Redevelopment Agency vs. Cheng Tan
While most property owners would be nervous about a legal maneuver that could potentially ruin their business, Tan projected calm before the storm.
"I prepared myself, researched all about eminent domain, so I know the law and I know what I'm getting into," said Tan in an interview last week. "If this was someone else who wasn't as prepared, this situation could drive someone to suicide or do something as drastic."
The case was actually the climax of a six-year struggle between the agency and Tan.
In 1999, the Jersey City Redevelopment Agency (followed by approval by the City Council in 2000) adopted the Tidewater Basin Redevelopment Plan that zoned the area where Tan's property was located for commercial and residential purposes. But before the year ended, they changed the zoning for the area to be utilized for athletic or educational purposes.
It turned out around the same time St. Peter's Prep was looking to develop a two-acre parcel of land once used for boat repair, to use now for an athletic field.
Tan said he opposed the zoning, since he wanted the freedom of either maintaining his business or developing the property for condos. Tan said that since 1999, he had looked to build a nine-unit condo building on the property he had owned since 1987. But the specter of the redevelopment plan and the possibility of the eminent domain always loomed heavy.
"I couldn't sue anyone to stop the taking of my property since I was not served with the papers to do so," said Tan.
Instead it was a number of negotiations with St. Peter's Prep over acquisition of the property over nearly six years, with the prevailing offer of $550,000. But Tan would not accept, saying the property is worth twice as much.
Tan said in July, the Redevelopment Agency served him with papers saying they would seize title to his property. Since then, Tan has presented his plight in front of the Jersey City City Council, in a letter Tan wrote to Archbishop John J. Myers of the Newark Archdiocese about his situation, and at a rally in October organized by the Hoboken Republicans Club against eminent domain.
In fact, Tan has become darling of the anti-eminent domain, pro-property rights crowd. He has appeared in front of the U.S. Senate to testify on eminent domain.
But in recent weeks, the other side has struck back.
Presenting their case
St. Peter's Prep recently posted an open letter on their school website (www.stpetersprep.com) defending themselves in this matter. The letter, dated Oct. 28, details the history leading to the hearing.
St. Peter's Prep points out in the letter that acquisition of the seven yards "was to increase the safety and usefulness of the facility by extending the northern portion of the field and, thus, eliminate the possibility of a youngster being injured by running into the rear of the buildings on Grand Street."
Prep was actually seeking the garages located behind Tan's building to complete the field, but were named redevelopers of the entire property by the Jersey City Redevelopment Agency.
Also stated in the open letter was that Prep had invested over $4 million dollars to develop the field and "within this accepted legal framework for municipal redevelopment, the school has made a good-faith offer to acquire the property, based on an independent appraisal of its value. James Horan, vice president of planning and external affairs for St. Peter's Prep, said last week that $550,000 is what is being offered to Tan based on the zoning of the property. In addition, a payment in that amount was deposited in an escrow account managed by the Jersey City Redevelopment Agency."
But he said that in a meeting held nearly a month ago between Tan and school officials, Tan was asking for too much.
"He told [Prep officials] that he wanted $1.35 million. That's way too much for property that is open space," said Horan. "If the property was zoned for residential or commercial, then I could see paying that but not in this case."
Also fighting back is the Jersey City Redevelopment Agency, which sent a 30-day notice of eviction to Tan on Oct. 4. The notice, a copy of which Tan provided to the Jersey City Reporter, indicated he had until this past Friday to vacate for reasons such as "failure to pay rent to the Jersey City Redevelopment Agency."
Tan said it was just "a scare tactic."
John Curley, special counsel for the JCRA, said the eviction is sent as a formality ahead of a hearing and there had been 90-day eviction notice sent previously in July, but no eviction proceedings were carried out. q
Ricardo Kaulessar can be reached at email@example.com.