State Can't Bulldoze Man's Atlantic City Home for Undefined 'Mixed Use Project,' N.J. Court Rules
A win for private property rights, and a defeat for proponents of eminent domain.
A New Jersey state agency can't use eminent domain to seize an Atlantic City house that's been in a man's family for decades.
It started back in 2012, when New Jersey's Casino Reinvestment Development Authority (CRDA) decided it wanted to demolish Charlie Birnbaum's longtime family home. The CRDA didn't appear to have specific plans for the land, instead intending to find a private developer who would build something on it. We do know that it was part of something called the "South Inlet Mixed Use Project," whose website provides very little descriptive information.
In June 2013, CRDA offered Birnbaum $238,500 for his house. He believed it was far too little, though it wasn't really about the money. "We're not here to quibble about getting him a few extra thousand dollars," Robert McNamara, a senior attorney at the Institute for Justice (IJ), the nonprofit libertarian law firm representing Birnbaum, told NJ.com in October. "He doesn't want to leave."
And for good reason; the three-story home simply means too much to Birnbaum. His family, who came to the U.S. in 1952, bought the Atlantic City house in 1969, before the town became known for its casinos. It's where he proposed to his wife Cindy, and it's where he dealt with his brother's suicide. It's where his father would end up living the last year of his life following a short stint in a nursing home, and where his mother, a Holocaust survivor, was murdered in a 1998 home invasion. While it's not his primary residence, Birnbaum runs a piano-tuning business out of the first floor and rents out the rest.
It made sense he wouldn't want to say goodbye to the beloved family home so some private company could develop a "mixed use project." So Birnbaum, with IJ's help, filed suit against the CRDA. "I just wanted to let you know that I'm Charles Birnbaum, the owner of the property you're trying to take. I'm the guy who's tuned pianos for all your shows for all these years," he told casino executives at a CRDA meeting meant to involve planning for the project, Birnbaum recalled to the Philly Voice in November. "You're trying to take away my ability to do my job well. I love this building. What you're doing is not right."
As Reason's Damon Root noted in 2016, officials claimed the South Inlet project was supposed to "complement" the newly opened Revel Casino. Even after the casino went bankrupt in 2014, the CRDA wouldn't cease its efforts to take Birnbaum's property. The casino, now called Ocean Resort, later reopened last June, though it's "still plagued by financial problems," according to The Philadelphia Inquirer. "Through all that turmoil, though, two things never changed," IJ said in a press release last week. "CRDA never wavered from its desire to condemn the property, and CRDA never once articulated what (if anything) it would do with the land after it knocked down the Birnbaums' longtime family home."
New Jersey Superior Court Judge Julio Mendez ruled in Birnbaum's favor in August 2016. "This Court concludes that the CRDA's decision to condemn the Birnbaums' property is a manifest abuse of the eminent domain power and in this Court's opinion is not consistent with the statutory condemnation authority of the CRDA," Mendez wrote at the time. "The CRDA's condemnation is denied."
But thanks to an appeal, the case would drag on for almost two more years. Then last week, the Superior Court of New Jersey Appellate Division upheld Mendez's decision. The court did note that the CRDA has the power to seize private property if it's for the "public use," and that "the imposition of a strict timeline" regarding the plans for that property "would be inappropriate." But in this case, partly due to the Revel's bankruptcy as well as uncertainty regarding the CRDA's "funding sources," it wouldn't be right for the agency to seize Birnbaum's house. "Under these highly unusual circumstances, it was reasonable for [Mendez] to question whether the Project would proceed in the foreseeable future when determining whether the proposed condemnation constituted a manifest abuse of the CRDA's condemnation authority," the February 15 ruling read.
"Judge Mendez found that with the Revel Casino closed, Atlantic City experiencing an unprecedented financial downturn, the Birnbaums' neighborhood being particularly hard hit, and the CRDA losing significant funding, the CRDA was attempting to 'bank land in hopes that it will be used in a future undefined project,'" it added, citing Mendez.
The ruling was celebrated by Birnbaum. "There's such a sense of relief, appreciation and understanding that you never hear about 99.9 percent of the people that go through losing property like this because they can't afford to fight," he told the Philly Voice.
At long last, it looks like his fight is finally over, with CRDA communications manager Karen Martin telling the outlet that "we respect the court's decision."
This is not the first time IJ has won an Atlantic City eminent domain-related case involving the CRDA. In 1994, Donald Trump and CRDA teamed up in an effort to kick an elderly widow out of her home so Trump could build a limousine parking lot on the land. Thanks to IJ's efforts, the widow, Vera Coking, prevailed in the resulting legal fight.
It took a while, but the same thing appears to have happened in Birnbaum's case. You can read the recent ruling here.