Long Branch property owners make an appeal for their homes

court.jpgYesterday, before a three-judge panel, attorneys representing homeowners in Long Branch, N.J. argued that the 36 well-maintained properties the city designated “in need of redevelopment” did not meet the state’s criteria for a blighted area. That city officials would like to see these middle-class homes sitting on the beachfront replaced by luxury condos isn’t surprising given local officials’ desire for increased tax revenue.

When the city’s redevelopment plan for the area was originally passed in 1996 both the residents and those who drew up the redevelopment plan understood that additional homes would be built in the MTOTSA neighborhood and that homeowners would be allowed to stay as the neighborhood around them was developed.

However, when the city hired a subsidiary of mega-developer J.K. Hovnanian in 2001, that understanding went out the window. In the developer’s 2004 plan, the homes were replaced with 150 condos that would sell for $500,000 to $1 million; later the number of condos was increased to 185 in order to increase developer profits. Making the situation worse, the city was still telling homeowners to trust officials and that they could still save their homes. Now, of course, the city says that homeowners’ objections came too late.

Yesterday’s argument was an appeal of a 2006 trial court decision that affirmed the city’s desire to take the homes via eminent domain. The Asbury Park Press has some background on those involved in the hearing.

MTOTSA property owners have the support of New Jersey Public Advocate Ron Chen, who said, “At the very least, you have to remand this case so property owners will be granted their chance [to challenge the city’s findings].”

Although asking pointed questions to both sides, one of the judges asked about the blight designation:

Judge Joseph Lisa asked how the city could declare the neighborhood blighted, partially on the basis of its remote lo cation.

“For residential development, isn’t that a plus?” he asked.

Before the hearing, members of the MTOTSA Alliance and other supporters held a rally outside the courthouse. Again, the Asbury Park Press covered the event:

Speakers recalled group members who have died during the years of battling to save their homes, including Anna DeFaria and Al and Mary Viviano.

“Although they may be gone, their fight lives on,” read one poster.

“I still have a lot of memories to make here. Please don’t take my great aunt’s and great uncle’s home away,” read another.

“It has been a long time, and it has been a long journey we have taken seeking justice,” Bullock said. “We are confident . . . the appellate court will rule what Long Branch has been doing in the MTOTSA neighborhood is wrong, illegal and will be stopped.”

Meanwhile, Newark Star-Ledger columnist Bob Braun looks at the bigger picture in Long Branch in the context of the New Jersey Marathon. His point is, sure it looks nice, but the price is probably too great:

The runners began on a boardwalk near an oceanfront hotel and a shopping village that replaced a number of honky-tonk shops, some of which had been abandoned. They passed a great lawn leading from an ocean-view condominium development where homes sold for upward of $500,000.

The thousands headed toward Seven Presidents Park, the sort of public facility that demonstrates the benefit of eminent domain — without it, many parks and other attractions that make urban life bearable, even enjoyable would not exist.

Nice, so far.

Then, however, the marathoners skirted the so-called MTOTSA neighborhood, a collection of well-tended homes owned by longtime Long Branch residents who face eviction because of the city’s plans. MTOTSA — from the name of three streets, Marine Terrace, Ocean Terrace, and Seaview Avenue — has fought eminent domain for a decade.

Although it lost in a trial court two years ago, MTOTSA picked up powerful new friends, including state Public Advocate Ronald Chen, who termed the city plan “unfair.”

Some MTOTSA families were refugees from one of the great disasters of eminent domain in New Jersey: the sad destruction in the 1950s of the old First Ward in Newark, the city’s old Italian neighborhood, to build Columbus Homes, a high-rise housing project that eventually was torn down.

Hmmm. Perhaps eminent is not so great an idea, after all.

IJ’s site has the full background on the case.