A Coastal Town Fights Back

Their homes are modest: charming bungalows and ranch houses, simple porches adorned with flowerpots, solid roofs and sun-baked sidewalks. But that’s just a fraction of the story. Their neighborhood is quaint, a family-oriented community on the coast of the New Jersey shore. Their houses enshrine memories dating as far back as the turn of the century, as meaningful as the birth of children and the passing of relatives. Their 38 properties are predominantly single-family homes, a three-block residential district in the heart of a historic and diverse town.

MTOTSA activists rally in October, 2005.

This quiet neighborhood, antiseptically coined “Beachfront North, Phase II” by the city government, has always been a peaceful haven for the families that live there, but the town’s use of eminent domain for private development has shattered the neighborhood’s peace. The city intends to take homes by eminent domain so that a private developer can bulldoze them to the ground and replace them with luxury condominiums—against the will of the current homeowners. Developers have already razed surrounding districts, destroying hundreds of houses and the livelihoods they represented. They have replaced them with cookie-cutter condominiums selling for hundreds of thousands of dollars, much more than any in the neighborhood can afford.

In an effort to save their neighborhood from the same fate, a determined group of Long Branch homeowners joined together in heartfelt opposition to the use of eminent domain for private commercial development. Named after the three streets in peril—Marine Terrace, Ocean Terrace and Seaview Avenue—they call themselves the MTOTSA Alliance. [1]

The Beginning: The Story of One Activist, and a Much Larger Mission

Lori Ann Vendetti, who has frequented Long Branch since the 1960s and whose elderly parents live in the neighborhood, has helped lead much of the charge. When she bought a house in 1995, she was very excited to plan to live across the street from her parents during their retirement. That plan was soon interrupted by discussions of eminent domain, and Lori ended up choosing not to move due to the uncertainty regarding condemnation.

“I go to my parents’ house every weekend,” she said, adding, “We used to come to this home every summer. It’s where I grew up. My memories are there. It’s a brick structure to the developers but it’s a home to me.”[2]

It’s not just any brick structure. When her parents moved down to Long Branch permanently twelve years ago, her family carried the used bricks from their old home in Newark to build part of their new castle. Lori Vendetti describes this 1960’s home as the place where she was planning to spend the rest of her life, the home where she too would retire. “It’s where I would want to die eventually,” she said.

Talks of redevelopment in Long Branch began as early as the mid-1990’s, but city officials told Vendetti and her neighbors that their homes would be incorporated into the plans. The city initially drafted plans for in-fill development, a process that would occur much more gradually, resulting in many of the same economic benefits for the city promised by the developers, and certainly not including involuntary land takings for private commercial development.

Vendetti said that homeowners were misled and that the city had “out and out lied” to them. It was only then that Vendetti and her neighbors realized that their homes were in peril, that under New Jersey law, the city could use eminent domain to condemn and destroy their homes. The city got that authority by labeling the nice homes in the area “blighted.” That’s when the close-knit community began to mobilize.

“A few of us met in one of our neighbor’s yards in June 2003. We picked five core group people and that’s what we started doing,” she said. After weeks of research at the local library and several discussions, the MTOTSA Alliance proceeded to challenge the city’s plan at the next city council meeting.

“The city council actually laughed at us,” she said in disbelief. “We were mortified. We were coming to ask for help and our elected representatives actually laughed at us.”

But the grassroots coalition wasn’t going to just walk away. Since then, the group has not missed a single city council meeting, constantly reminding the elected board every week that their homes are not for sale, that eminent domain for private profit is flat-out wrong, and that replacing one modest property for a wealthier one is unjust.

“The city council hates it. Each of us tell our own stories… that we want to stay, that our homes are not blighted, that our homes are not for sale.”

The MTOTSA Alliance has also taken its campaign to the court of public opinion. A rally in February 2005 in the freezing cold drew upwards of two hundred supporters, and a second rally in October 2005 brought 500 sympathetic supporters to stand beside them. Vendetti, who played a major role in organizing the rallies, said that what began as a battle to save their homes has evolved into a mission for principle.

“Eminent domain for private development is not going away unless we, the public, stop it.” She emphasized that the activist group has confronted obstacle after obstacle, and that they constantly support each other in their difficult fight.

From the outset, city officials and developers tried to intimidate them to give up their homes; after all, it was probably the threat of eminent domain that convinced a number of landowners to sell in surrounding communities. The MTOTSA Alliance was hopeful when the mayor encouraged them to submit their own plan for redevelopment, something the mayor said could be simple and informal. The group submitted a thorough, sincere alternative, and the city council brushed it off and dismissed it. Developers themselves have tried to discredit their efforts to the public, and one developer of this project described them to the New York Times as “opportunists looking for higher prices for their property.”[3]

“How could you be an opportunist when all you want to do is keep your home,” responded Vendetti. She added that this is a fight that pins entirely economic considerations against American values, and that she is pro
ud to champion the cause of individual property rights.

She said that the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Kelo v. City of New London was more than a judicial blow to property rights. She simply asked, “When did little neighborhoods of single-family homes become something of the past? Obviously you get more tax money with a condominium than four or five homes, but when did that become more important than protecting homeowners who worked so hard to achieve the American dream?”

A Community in Peril

A quick glance at the other residents of the neighborhood who are slated to suffer the consequences of eminent domain proves that this is not about dollars and cents, as some developers and city officials contend. These are hardworking Americans, many who built or bought their Long Branch homes in the 1940’s, 50’s and 60’s as summer residences, and have since moved into them permanently. This is certainly not a battle for better compensation; it is a fight by a group of homeowners who are battling to keep what is rightfully theirs.

Anna DeFaria has lived in her oceanfront home for 45 years. She has raised all four of her children there, and the thought of relocating terrifies her. She told the local newspaper, the Atlanticville: “I am 80 years old now and a widow. Where do you go if they take your home away?” She added, “I feel safe and secure here. I thought I would stay here until I died.”[4]

DeFaria is not the only one. Longtime neighbor Rose LaRosa inherited her childhood home from her parents in 1983. She says her home stands as a tribute to her brother, a heroic American soldier who visited Long Branch while on leave from his World War II service; his dream, she shared with a newspaper reporter, was to buy a home in this coastal town when the war ended. A few months later, he died in a plane crash, and LaRosa says her father immediately bought the house in his memory. Since then, the home has stayed in the family for generations. She said, “My kids are brokenhearted. They grew up here. My son was born on that bed. My whole life is thinking about it. All my life is here.”[5]

Al Viviano’s story is not much different. He too is a longtime resident of Long Branch. He has been coming to this neighborhood since 1931, and he moved into his home permanently 25 years ago. Now in his nineties, he is a retired blacksmith who put in a life of hard work to be where he is now.[6]

Fighting Tooth and Nail for their Homes

The stories of Lori Vendetti, Anna DeFaria, Rose LaRosa and Al Viviano are just the tip of the iceberg for this neighborhood. In a matter of months, greedy developers muscled their way into the close-knit ethnic community and have already begun turning the coastal district into a series of luxury condominium complexes. Government officials have already initiated eminent domain proceedings, and a legal battle is underway.

For these Long Branch citizens, the condemnation proceedings they are currently facing are as much a source of heartbreak as they are a source of renewed motivation. They say they intend to fight tooth and nail to keep their homes, that they will continue to appeal to public opinion, that they will continue to try to reason with elected officials (they have already convinced one city council member) and that they will challenge their evictions in court on the grounds that eminent domain for private commercial development is a rights violation.

The MTOTSA Alliance has networked nationally for support. They attended the Castle Coalition’s Washington, D.C., conference, they spend hours each day on the telephone and on the Internet corresponding with the media and soliciting support, and they continue to pressure New Jersey state and local legislators to first pass a moratorium on eminent domain for private commercial development and eventually an outright legislative prohibition.

Vendetti is resolute in her convictions and said, “There’s no way we’re going to stop.”

[1] See Ronald Smothers, “In Long Branch, No Olive Branches,” New York Times, 16 Oct. 2005; Christine Varno, “Eminent Domain Letters Evoke Anger, Distress,” Atlanticville, 13 Oct. 2005.

[2] Note: All quotations from Lori Vendetti from a Personal Interview with Justin Gelfand, Oct. 17 2005.

[3] Ronald Smothers, “In Long Branch, No Olive Branches,” New York Times, 16 Oct. 2005.

[4] Christine Varno, “Eminent Domain Letters Evoke Anger, Distress,” Atlanticville, 13 Oct. 2005.

[5] Carol Gorga Williams, “Homeowners: Don’t Force Us Out for New Condos,” Coastal Monmouth Bureau (undated).

[6] Bob Braun, “Shore Neighborhood Finds Hope,” New Jersey Star Ledger, 6 Oct. 2004.