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Mulberry Street Coalition
03-29-2006, 10:58 AM
Chen says he sees eminent domain on top of agenda
Tuesday, March 28, 2006
BY KATE COSCARELLI
Star-Ledger Staff
When Ronald Chen announced yesterday that in his new role as state public advocate he would take on the issue of eminent do main, it was a topic he knew something about.

Just last fall he was writing legal briefs in support of a bar owner fighting to keep Jersey City from taking his property to make a bigger football field at St. Peter's Prep school. The bar owner won.

But in his new job, the former dean of academic affairs at Rutgers University School of Law-Newark said he would take a fresh look at the controversial redevelopment tool, noting he had reached no conclusions yet.

"This is a complex issue. It is obviously one of great concern to all New Jerseyans," said Chen, who spoke at a ceremonial swearing-in at his former law school. "I hope to report to the governor what we think the most effective way to en sure eminent domain is used properly and fairly while at the same time making redevelopment possible."

For more than a decade, the state has done without a public ad vocate, after Republicans shuttered the office 12 years ago. Gov. Jon Corzine said the ceremony marking the restoration of the department was an "important mo ment" that would help bring accountability to government.

"A good and decent man has a tremendous capacity to help our society be a better place ... It is important for people to have a voice," Corzine said.

Chen, 47, who was officially sworn in two weeks ago, said his agenda was not to provide "knee- jerk legal responses to the headlines of the day" and would only use litigation as a last resort. He said once the office was fully staffed, it would examine issues affecting ratepayers, the elderly, and developmentally disabled residents. Though he did not specify any cases, Chen said he expected to file "friend of the court" briefs in some existing matters.

The office also will create an ombudsman to work with the Office of Homeland Security and Preparedness on balancing civil liberties with safety, an issue Chen said is dear to his heart from his constitutional work and in the aftermath of 9/11.

"I pledge my utmost to provide a voice for those rendered mute by poverty or other forms of political incompetence," Chen said. "I declare to our clients, the public, that the Department of Public Advo cate is now open and I pledge to work foremost with your interest in my heart."

On the issue of eminent do main, Chen's announcement was greeted with support from both sides of the issue, like the New Jersey Coalition Against Eminent Do main Abuse and the New Jersey Builders Association.

William Dressel of the state League of Municipalities, a strong supporter of the redevelopment tool, said he thought it was a good idea, but worried that Chen was getting into the debate too late.

In June, the U.S. Supreme Court handed a sweeping victory to supporters of eminent domain. Since then, it has become an issue across the state from Camden to Morristown. The Legislature also has held public hearings on the existing state law that allows towns to seize private property deemed "in need of redevelopment" using powers of eminent domain and hand it over to private developers.

Chen did not offer many details about how his examination would unfold or how long it would take. He did say he would consult national experts, visit areas where it has been used and discuss the issue with the public and elected officials.

"We'll work as hard as we can, but we want to do it right," he said.

Corzine said he is anxious to hear Chen's recommendations.

"It is in Ron's court to look at this and try to come up with a positive structuring of how our policy in this state should work," he said.