Long Branch victory heats up eminent domain debate

By David Porter
Associated Press Writer / September 21, 2009

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NEWARK, N.J.—After winning a lengthy battle to stop her city from seizing her home for an upscale condominium project, Lori Vendetti is pretty sure of one thing: The fight isn't over.

Vendetti is part of a small group of homeowners in the seaside town of Long Branch who prevailed last week in the state's most celebrated case involving eminent domain, the law that allows a government to take land needed for a public use or redevelopment after paying a fair price for it.

As she enjoys her victory in a dispute that dates back to the late 1990s, Vendetti is part of a statewide group that advises other New Jersey homeowners in New Jersey who may be vulnerable to similar actions -- a product, she and other property rights advocates say, of the state's legislative inaction.

"They think because the Long Branch case went away that we're going to go away," Vendetti said last week after a judge awarded more than $400,000 in legal fees to the Long Branch residents. "But the same law that threatened our homes is still on the books."

In broad terms, eminent domain cases can be classified by whether they were filed before or after a landmark 2005 case in which the Supreme Court upheld the seizure of private homes for a downtown redevelopment project by the city of New London, Conn.

Since that ruling, 43 states have modified their eminent domain laws and increased protections for individual homeowners, according to the Virginia-based Institute for Justice, a national advocacy group. New Jersey is one of the seven that haven't.

As a result, New Jersey residents have had to rely more heavily on the courts to achieve their ends. That has worked in some cases, said attorney Anthony Della Pelle, whose firm has represented numerous clients in eminent domain cases. He cited homeowners in Harrison, West Orange, Englewood and Carteret who were able to keep their property in recent years.

"The courts have been increasingly conscious of protecting property rights," Della Pelle said. "It has become more commonplace for people in redevelopment areas to defeat redevelopment projects because courts have scrutinized local government power more carefully than they used to."

Other property owners haven't been as fortunate. Retired pharmacist Robert Miller and other business owners in Cliffside Park unsuccessfully opposed a plan in 2006 to raze part of the northern New Jersey town for a residential and retail development that has yet to be built.

"We all had lawyers, and we formed a coalition of property owners, but it just didn't seem like enough of the people were willing to step up to the plate," he said. "In the interim, they basically destroyed the retail section of their own city."

The Institute for Justice said it is monitoring more than a dozen cases in New Jersey in which private homes or businesses have been targeted for acquisition through eminent domain.

A pending bill in New Jersey's Senate would revise existing law to "remove the possibility of property owners losing their homes simply because a 'better' use could be envisioned by a local government."

Bill co-sponsor John Burzichelli, D-Paulsboro, said the legislation also would require developers to reapply after five years if they have not acquired land by eminent domain, to prevent homeowners from living for extended periods under the specter of having their homes taken if projects are delayed.

Meanwhile, Vendetti has a message for homeowners who may be hesitant to fight City Hall.

"We just learned as we went along," she said. "We divided up the jobs and did the researching. Some things fell in our laps, and we had a lot of public support. If I had to do it all over again, I would do it."