When Success Comes to Those Hit Hardest by Eminent Domain

fight-bogus-blight.gifTwo successes in two different states highlight what can be done in even the places where eminent domain is abused the most.

First, in yet another New Jersey state court decision, a Superior Court judge threw out the Borough of Neptune City’s blight designation for its Steiner Avenue redevelopment project.

In New Jersey, it’s necessary to declare an area “in need of redevelopment” before a municipality can use eminent domain; New Jersey courts are slowly and incrementally putting limits on the vague requirements necessary to declare an area “in need of redevelopment.” For instance, last year, the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled that a property could be blighted for merely being “underutilized.”

In the case of Neptune City, the borough argued that just “a drive through the area shows that it is in need of redevelopment.” But Superior Court Judge Lawrence Lawson ruled that declaring blight requires more than just a superficial survey or a list of a given area’s “aesthetic flaws.”

City officials insist that the area remains blighted, but they will have to do a more meticulous analysis of the 17-acre area before they can attempt to designate it an “area in need of redevelopment” again.

Of course, as the Asbury Park Press point out, more consistent reform could be achieved—and significant court costs could be avoided—if the New Jersey legislature passed real eminent domain reform.

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Minnesota was one state that passed eminent domain reform. It’s good reform, too…except for the all of the projects that were grandfathered into the reform bill, allowing eminent domain to be used in projects that were already in existence when reform was passed in 2006.

One of the cities whose redevelopment project was exempted from the reform legislation was the Minneapolis suburb of New Brighton, second only to the City of Richfield as the worst abuser of eminent domain in Minnesota. The city began seizing land for its mixed-use redevelopment project called the Northwest Quadrant in the late 90s and continued doing so until the end of 2007.

The New Brighton city council, however, passed an ordinance in late July, restricting the city’s ability to use eminent domain. The ordinance, passed unanimously, requires that three public hearings be held by the city council before the council can vote to authorize eminent domain. In addition, two-thirds of the city council have to approve that eminent domain is not being used primarily for economic development but for a public purpose.

The vote is a bittersweet success for property owners in New Brighton, however. During the past decade, the redevelopment project has faltered, with two major developers deserting the project and the city now owing million of dollars in debt.

Nevertheless, reform is reform. It would not have been possible had not reform advocates on the city council kept bringing up the need for reform. The Mayor, in fact, admitted that he thinks the reform goes too far but that he voted for it, just so the issue could be put to rest. Now that eminent domain is more than likely off the table in New Brighton, residents can rest easy.