Shore man tries to stop land takeover
February 20, 2005
By Carol Gorga Williams
The Asbury Park Press
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Long Branch, New Jersey - Part-time city resident Harold Bobrow is seeking what he says is justice, and he has gone to the justices of the U.S. Supreme Court to get it.

"I am a homeowner (who) is being displaced and will lose my home to make a redeveloper richer," he wrote in separate letters to each of the justices. "I feel the way the eminent domain law is being interpreted goes against all that this country was founded on."

Bobrow, who also has a home in Maplewood, but whose Beachfront South home is threatened under the city's redevelopment plans, is -- like many city residents -- watching developments in a case before the Supreme Court this week that could determine whether government agencies have the right to take private property for economic development.

Susette Kelo and six other property owners from New London, Connecticut, are fighting plans by their hometown to take their homes to make way for a private development of condominiums, offices and a hotel to be built adjacent to a research office built by New York-based Pfizer, the world's largest drugmaker.

Arguments are scheduled Tuesday in Supreme Court.

The U.S. Constitution lets governments take private property for "public use" as long as they pay the owner "just compensation." Making room for highways and public buildings or clearing slums has long been considered a valid public use.

The New London case may decide whether the jobs, property taxes and other economic benefits of such projects as office buildings and shopping malls are added to that list.

"I feel the government has been going further and further in overpowering its own citizens to the point where many individuals have lost the rights that this country was based on, which was overwhelming oppression of government," said Michelle Bobrow, Harold's wife.

The question before the Supreme Court is: "What protection does the Fifth Amendment's public use requirement provide for individuals whose property is being condemned -- not to eliminate slums or blight -- but for the sole purpose of "economic development' that will perhaps increase tax revenues and improve the local economy?"

The case is closely watched in Monmouth County communities where redevelopment has taken hold -- Long Branch, Asbury Park, Neptune -- and also around the nation where opponents of redevelopment maintain eminent domain is being abused.

The Connecticut case "is at the intersection of the rights of individuals and the rights of society as a whole," said Edward B. O'Connell, a lawyer for the New London Development Corp., which was created by that city to develop the site.

"What if one person doesn't wish to sell?" O'Connell said. "Is that one person entitled to derail a project that will benefit tens of thousands of people?"

Pfizer employs 1,500 people in New London and another 4,500 at a research plant across the Thames River in Groton, Connecticut. The company isn't involved in the lawsuit, and it bought the land for the New London office without use of condemnation.

The New London Development Corp. estimates the project will generate between 1,200 and 2,300 jobs and up to $1.2 million in property taxes.

That doesn't justify taking people's land, said lawyer Scott G. Bullock of the Institute for Justice, a Washington-based group that focuses on individual and property rights, who will argue before the high court on the homeowners' behalf.

"Any home would be more productive as a Home Depot," Bullock said. If New London wins, "you will own your home or small business subject to a large developer or big-box retailer teaming up with the government to take your property."

Bullock's institute has been advising Long Branch residents how to fight eminent domain, but he has stopped short of saying the nonprofit group will represent property owners in a legal fight both sides acknowledge is coming.

As for the Kelo case, Bobrow said the justices have the ability to "rectify" the problems associated with eminent domain land-takings.

"Your title is a justice and I feel this should be your goal when you make this decision," Bobrow wrote. "The family and your home are the basic building blocks of our nation. Please keep this in mind when you are making your decision."

A decision is expected this spring or early summer.

Meanwhile, Mayor Adam Schneider, says the question in the Kelo case is an interesting one, but it really does not have much to do with Long Branch's redevelopment, which was not pursued in the sole interest of economic development but rather to clear blighted land, which he termed slums.

Schneider has cited several benefits to redevelopment, which include replacing inferior housing, demolishing a burned-out water slide that was rat-infested, one day reconstructing the ocean pier, redesigning Ocean Boulevard to make it more pedestrian friendly and improving beach access, and increasing public space along the oceanfront. The city's boardwalk is being rebuilt, courtesy of some redevelopers.

"What we've done has little if anything to do with the Kelo case," Schneider said.

City officials are poised for opponents -- largely members of the Marine Terrace Ocean Terrace Seaview Avenue Alliance with homes in the city's Beachfront North Phase 2 development -- to challenge the constitutionality of New Jersey's redevelopment law, passed in 1992.

"They are free to make that argument," Schneider said. "It is going to fail." 

Copyright 2005, IN Jersey.