New Jersey Supreme Court Limits Bogus Blight Designations

CONTACT: John Kramer; Lisa Knepper
(703) 682-9320
June 13, 2007

Arlington, Va.—Today, the New Jersey Supreme Court unanimously struck down an attempt by the Borough of Paulsboro to “blight” a vacant piece of property, holding that the fact that a piece of land is “not fully productive” cannot be used as a basis for including the property in a redevelopment area.

“This decision is very important for the hundreds of property owners in New Jersey fighting to save their homes and small businesses from eminent domain abuse,” said Scott Bullock, an Institute for Justice senior attorney who argued the Kelo v. City of New London case before the U.S. Supreme Court in 2005 and who is representing homeowners in Long Branch, N.J., in an eminent domain case currently before New Jersey’s appellate court.  “The Court made it absolutely clear that the judiciary must play a vital role in reviewing bogus blight declarations by tax-hungry municipalities throughout the state.”  The Institute filed an amicus curiae brief in the Gallenthin v. Borough of Paulsboro case on the side of the property owner.

In its opinion, the Court warned of the danger of open-ended blight designations used by the Borough in this case and by many other municipalities throughout New Jersey:  “Under [the Borough’s] approach, any property that is operated in a less than optimal manner is arguably ‘blighted.’  If such an all-encompassing definition of ‘blight’ were adopted, most property in the State would be eligible for redevelopment.”

The opinion also contains some very helpful language to the homeowners fighting the condemnation of their properties in Long Branch.  In discussing the level of proof needed by governments in redevelopment cases, the Court declared:  “[A] municipality must establish a record that contains more than a bland recitation of applicable statutory criteria and a declaration that those criteria are met.  Because a redevelopment designation carries serious implications for property owners, the net opinion of an expert is simply too slender a reed on which to rest that determination.”

“In declaring a perfectly fine neighborhood ‘blighted,’ the City of Long Branch relied on the very type of bland, conclusory evidence that the Supreme Court in this case declares inadequate,” said Jeff Rowes, an Institute for Justice staff attorney who authored the Institute’s amicus brief in the Gallenthin case and who represents the Long Branch homeowners.  “The Court’s decision definitely strengthens our argument that Long Branch violated New Jersey law in taking the homes of long-time residents.”

“The New Jersey Supreme Court joins other state high courts, including Ohio, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, Maryland, and Missouri, in starting to cut back on the abuse of eminent domain and redevelopment powers by local municpalities,” said Dana Berliner, an IJ senior attorney who argued the case at the Ohio Supreme Court.  In the wake of the Kelo decision, many state supreme courts are visiting these issues for the first time in decades and increasing judicial oversight of eminent domain.