Stolen years, endless waits are eminent domain's toll

Stolen years, endless waits are eminent domain's toll

November 16, 2006 Star Ledger

In her cozy white clapboard bungalow three blocks from the ocean in Asbury Park, Angie Hampilos waits. And waits.

For 20 years now, Hampilos, 92, has lived under the specter of losing her home of 47 years to make way for the city's long-awaited oceanfront redevelopment.

She can't sell it; she can't make any big improvements. She just watches it fall apart around her.

A month ago, the city council would have voted to condemn her tiny home on Sewell Avenue without notifying her had one of the council members not stepped in. For now, her case is on hold, so still she waits.

In the world of eminent domain, hers is not an uncommon story. Similar situations are playing out in Trenton, Newark, Lodi, Bloomfield and many other towns where eminent domain has been used by government to further private redevelopment plans.

The issue was big news last year, when gubernatorial candidates Jon Corzine and Doug Forrester vowed to crack down on the practice, but a reform effort bogged down in the Legislature. And people like Hampilos are still waiting.

The controversy stems from what has become a widespread expansion of a very old practice. Governments have long used their powers of eminent domain to seize private property to make way for roads, schools and other projects of public necessity. But a change in state law in 1992 made it much easier to seize property and turn it over to private developers, ostensibly to clear blighted neighborhoods.

The problem in the case of Hampilos and others is that towns often start the process -- by labeling a neighborhood "in need of redevelopment" -- and then don't follow through right away by actually seizing the property and compensating the owner. Such projects are massive in scale and can take years to complete, although sometimes market forces delay projects for decades.

Delay can be disastrous for property owners. They can't sell their houses, nor would banks lend them money for repairs. Towns won't give them the permits to renovate. Some critics say it contributes to the very blight government is allegedly cleaning up.

"Once your property is named in an area in need of redevelopment, it can be held indefinitely," said Peter H. Wegener, a Lakewood attorney representing a number of property owners facing condemnation. "It's totally unfair to the property owners on all levels."

Supporters say towns need the power to seize property to turn abandoned factories, drug-ridden slums and otherwise fading neighborhoods into new ratables. They often use the state's "Smart Growth" initiative as their reason to rehabilitate cities accessible by mass transit to help control urban sprawl.

Victor and Debra Lewis, owners of a bridal shop and tuxedo rental business in Bloomfield, have lived with eminent domain for six years as the Essex County town tries to redevelop its business district. Two years ago, they posted signs in their windows opposing the taking, but they pulled them out a year later for fear customers would think they were going out of business. They say business is still booming, and they don't plan to go anywhere.

But keeping up that fight has been hard, Victor Lewis said. Every time they win a round in court and think the issue is over, the town comes back at them.

Critics of so-called eminent-domain abuse consider the open-ended nature of the threat to be one of the most egregious provisions of such laws.

Groups like the Washington-based Institute for Justice have been on the attack since June 2005, when the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the right of government to seize property to further private development in Kelo vs. New London, Conn.

Steven Anderson of the institute's Castle Coalition said 31 states have approved eminent domain reforms after Kelo, but only eight set a deadline for acting on a blight designation.

In New Jersey, there was initially bipartisan calls for reform, but the effort met fierce resistance from powerful groups like the League of Municipalities and has stalled.

Assemblyman John Burzichelli (D-Gloucester) authored a reform bill that was passed by the Assembly and is being considered by the Senate. While it would require towns to act on a blight designation within five years, towns could vote to renew the designation and start the clock rolling again.

"That issue of the hanging uncertainty was legitimate," Burzichelli said. "Anyone, whether it be a homeowner or a business, having to live with uncertainty, it just didn't seem to be reasonable over a long period."

That would apply to homeowners like Michelle and Harold Bobrow, who moved into their beachfront condominium in Long Branch 17 years ago. Three years later, their neighborhood was deemed "in need of redevelopment."

Although his property has been in danger of being seized for 14 years, Bobrow said it was only in 2000 he learned the town planned to replace him with luxury townhouses and retail stores.

"It basically destroys your life," Bobrow said of the looming eminent domain. "I'm going to the mat with these people, because they're wrong. They're not going to take my possessions."

Some people like Hampilos, the bungalow owner in Asbury Park, however, don't have the wherewithal to put up as fierce a fight.

Her attorney, Paul Fernicola, said he's just trying to get the city to allow his client to live out the rest of her days in the home where she's celebrated birthdays, weddings and anniversaries with relatives for nearly five decades.

"I feel they gonna chase me out," Hampilos said in a thick Greek accent. "I'm gonna be a displaced person."

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