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Old 08-31-2006, 08:42 AM   #1
Mulberry Street Coalition
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Default Public Advocate involved in case

Activists and state to fight home seizures in Long Branch
Residents find allies in eminent domain war
Thursday, August 31, 2006
BY MARYANN SPOTOStar-Ledger Staff
For 3 1/2 years, Long Branch residents fighting to keep their homes out of the city's oceanfront redevelopment plan mostly battled alone.
That changed yesterday.
The state public advocate and a national constitutional rights advocacy group will lend their legal muscle to the residents of MTOTSA -- Marine Terrace, Ocean Terrace and Seaview Avenue -- as they appeal a ruling allowing their oceanside homes to be given to a private developer though eminent domain.
"As of today, this neighborhood is ground zero in the fight against eminent domain abuse, not only in New Jersey but across the nation," said Chip Mellor, president of the libertarian Institute for Justice.
The institute has provided some guidance for the bloc of Long Branch residents in the past, but it said it now will become the co-counsel of one of the homeowners' attorneys in the ongoing legal battle.
Additionally, state Public Advocate Ronald Chen said his office will appear as a "friend of the court" for the residents because he feels the policy of taking private land for public use needs to be reformed. This marks the first time the Department of the Public Advocate, re-established by Gov. Jon Corzine in January, has joined an eminent domain case. Since shortly after taking office in March, Chen has visited Long Branch, Lodi and Camden and has held discussions with state and local officials to investigate the use of eminent domain for private development.
In May, he issued a report recommending reforms.
"The facts in this case raise serious concerns regarding whether these homeowners received fair treatment throughout this process, and I believe it is appropriate for the Appellate Division to review this case," Chen said at a news conference yesterday in the neighborhood.
Some three dozen properties in the three-block area are slated to be razed to make room for 183 luxury townhouses and condominiums. Some of those property owners have agreed to sell, but a dozen have vowed to fight.
In March they asked Superior Court Assignment Judge Lawrence Lawson in Freehold to invalidate the city's redevelopment plan, but in June the judge upheld the project.
Peter Wegener, a Lakewood attorney representing most of the litigating homeowners, said yesterday he filed a notice to appeal the decision.
We welcome the help of being joined by the institute in this fight, which is clearly against the abuse of the eminent domain power," Wegener said. "There's no question that, in this instance, the powers-to-be in the city of Long Branch did not even follow their own redevelopment plan."
He contends the original redevelopment plan did not require the houses in the MTOTSA neighborhood to be torn down. He said the city made an improper deal with the developers, Matzel & Mumford and the Applied Cos., to take the houses only after they saw how successfully the townhouses and condominiums were selling and the prices they were commanding.
Long Branch officials maintain the neighborhood homes were subject to eminent domain from the beginning. They say they have followed the proper procedures for taking the properties.
James Aaron, an attorney for Long Branch, said the city was expecting an appeal.
"The city is ready to defend the plan that's been an award-winning redevelopment plan," Aaron said. "The city is going to be vindicated in every aspect of the appeal."
The Institute for Justice represented property owners last year in the now-famous Connecticut case Kelo vs. New London, in which the U.S. Supreme Court gave governing bodies wide latitude in how seized private property can be used. The institute is appealing that decision.
In its "win" column, the institute represented property owners in a town near Cincinnati, where the taking of homes through eminent domain was unanimously struck down by the Ohio Supreme Court recently. The residents had lost their cases at the trial and appellate levels.
Scott Bullock, one of the institute lawyers, said his organization will focus its Long Branch arguments on constitutional issues, such as whether the construction of private townhouses and condominiums constitutes the public use specified in state eminent domain policies.
Long Branch resident Lori Ann Vendetti welcomed the extra legal help.
"It's been a long haul. We've come this far, and we're not stopping," she said. "Some of our people sold, but our base group has not sold. We've been united and we're staying strong.
"And that's what we need. And that's what we have to show Long Branch. That's what we have to show New Jersey and America," Vendetti continued. "This is happening throughout the country, and we're not going to stop until eminent domain abuse stops here, as well as throughout the country."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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