Specter of Eminent Domain Haunts Atlantic City Property Owners

By Andrew Koehlinger

Rumblings of eminent domain abuse roll through Atlantic City, where the city and its partner in crime–the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority (CRDA) — are once again up to no good. The CRDA is moving forward with plans to use eminent domain to seize at least 62 homes in the South Inlet, holding three informational meetings in July for affected citizens.[1]

News reports indicate the CRDA wants to transfer that property to a private developer who will “redevelop” the area by building luxury condominiums, restaurants, specialty stores and boutiques to compliment the city’s newest casino, Revel.[2] The project is part of a larger redevelopment scheme outlined in the City Tourism District’s Master Plan, which means even more private property could be threatened in the future.

Charlie Birnbaum is one of the property owners in the targeted area. His three-story home, which has been in the family for 43 years, sits in a prime location just a block from the ocean. From its rooftop, he can see “his lighthouse” (otherwise known as the Absecon Lighthouse). Over the years, the home itself has become its own light on a hill in the midst of life’s tumultuous storms.

A piano prodigy, Charlie’s parents dedicated their lives to his success. They moved the family from San Francisco to Philadelphia so Charlie could attend the Curtis Institute of Music. Charlie’s talent grew; he auditioned for the Philadelphia Orchestra and Leonard Bernstein and performed at Robin Hood Dell and the Academy of Music. But after failing to win the Leventritt, a premier international piano competition, Charlie discovered a new way to continue being his parent’s hope for success.

The birth of his first child Rachel catalyzed his decision to forgo the brutal practice regime required to prepare for performances, for the more flexible lifestyle of a piano tuner for Atlantic City’s casinos. He has had the honor of tuning for artists like Frank Sinatra, Bon Jovi, and most recently Beyoncé. The job allowed him to stay near his parent’s home, raise a family, and tend to his aging parents.

Sadly tragedy struck several years after his father’s death when a crack addict broke into his parent’s house and murdered his 86-year-old mother. But that same home proved to be a refuge. Charlie grieved the loss of his mother by transforming the troubled parlor into a quite sanctuary complete with two rebuilt grand pianos. Charlie goes there daily to “touch the face of God” by playing the gift of music his parents gave him. But now the CRDA wants to take away this daily reprieve.[3]

Charlie is not the only property owner in Atlantic City who has found himself battling the unholy alliance between tax-hungry governments and land-hungry developers. In 1997, the CRDA attempted to take the property of elderly widow Vera Coking and transfer it to another private individual: Donald Trump. Trump convinced the CRDA to use its eminent domain power to take Vera’s home so he could construct a limousine parking lot for the customers of his Trump Plaza Casino and Hotel. IJ successfully challenged the taking of Vera Coking’s property in New Jersey Superior Court, and she enjoyed her home of more than three decades for another ten years.

Then in 2007, Atlantic City officials tried to designate the business of Quang Ha and those of other small property owners in a 24-acre area around the former Sands casino as “in need of redevelopment,” in order to seize the property through eminent domain and transfer it to Pinnacle Entertainment for its new casino. Quang had opened his jewelry store after fleeing from communist Vietnam where his business was seized for being profitable. After 32 days at sea and five months in a refugee camp, Quang reached the “land of the free” only to have what he worked so hard to build threatened again by the government. Ultimately, Quang Ha, IJ and New Jersey eminent domain attorney Bill Potter successfully convinced city officials to rescind their redevelopment designation and Pinnacle Entertainment abandoned its casino project.

In all three cases the CRDA acted as the agent for powerful special interests. Each time they have sought to tear down what property owners had worked so hard to build-up and rehabilitate, while still claiming they were “taking care” of residents.

The Institute for Justice worked alongside Vera Coking and Quang Ha, and will now again join forces with  Charlie and other small business and homeowners in Atlantic City to defend their right to keep what they’ve worked so hard to own against the powerful interests of politically-connected developers. Atlantic City should remember the consequences of their past sins and think twice before abusing its power of eminent domain again.