Eminent Domain

Citing Deference to 'Broad' Government Power, Judge Says Atlantic City May Bulldoze Home to Benefit Casino

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According to the New Jersey Constitution, state officials may only condemn private property for redevelopment purposes when that property is "blighted." Yet in a ruling issued on Monday, Judge Julio L. Mendez of the New Jersey Superior Court allowed Atlantic City to seize one man's non-blighted family home. Why? Because the state enjoys "broad" powers, the judge said, and the courts have no business standing in the way.

Known as Casino Reinvestment Development Authority v. Birnbaum, this case originated in 2012 when Atlantic City officials announced a "South Inlet Mixed Use Development Project" designed to "complement the new Revel Casino and assist with the demands created by the resort." Although the specifics of the plan were never announced and the Revel Casino recently declared bankruptcy, state officials have persisted in their efforts to snatch up various parcels of land on behalf of this shadowy real estate scheme. Among the properties targeted for condemnation is the well-tended family home of Charles Birnbaum, located near the Atlantic City boardwalk.

"The so-called Project consists entirely of high-blown rhetoric and a handful of 'conceptual' drawings provided by the Revel Casino," Birnbaum and his lawyers at the Institute for Justice told the court. "This project fails to satisfy any of the requirements that would allow CRDA to take the Birnbaum Family Home."

They're right. Birnbaum's home is neither blighted nor in need of any urban renewal. And as the New Jersey Supreme Court has plainly stated, "the New Jersey Constitution authorizes government redevelopment of only 'blighted areas.'"

Yet despite the clear limitations imposed on state eminent domain power by both constitutional text and legal precedent, Judge Mendez went ahead and rubber stamped the land grab anyway. The CRDA's actions, he said, serve "the public purpose of promoting tourism and assisting the ailing gaming industry."

But if that loose standard is allowed to become law, no property in or around Atlantic City would ever be safe from the government's bulldozers.

Fortunately, the case is not done yet. Birnbaum plans to file an appeal and as his lawyer Robert McNamara declared, "the Constitution of New Jersey does not allow this, the people of New Jersey should not tolerate this, and neither Charlie nor the Institute for Justice will permit this ruling to stand."