(Emily Larsen, Liberty Headlines) Small business owners and residents in the downtown district of Emerson, New Jersey, may be forced to make way for new apartments and retail stores from private developer JMF Properties through eminent domain.
A suburb of New York City, the small borough named for Ralph Waldo Emerson in Bergen County designated an area of properties known as “Block 419” as a “condemnation redevelopment area” eligible to be sold to JMF by force through eminent domain, and is considering designating over 50 other properties as such. If that happens, the business owners and homeowners could be forced out of town.
The Institute for Justice and affected residents demand that the borough stop any further study and consideration of the area for condemnation.
“My business is my retirement,” Dominick Scala, owner of the Cork & Keg liquor store, told NorthJersey.com. He’s owned the store with his brother Thomas for the last 20 years. “I don’t have a pension.”
Mayor Louis Lamatina and other county officials insist that that they hope to never have to use the eminent domain clause — but that it might be necessary.
“The designated developer [JMF Properties] will be required to negotiate in good faith to acquire the land voluntarily from each owner,” said Lamatina at a February council meeting. “Only if those efforts fail will the borough be called upon to consider whether to exercise the use of eminent domain.”
Lamatina has been a strong proponent of redevelopment of Emerson for his entire decade in office.
“Downtown sorely needs new blood,” Mayor Lamatina told NorthJersey.com, noting that “it looked the same” in the 1950s as it does today.
The borough’s budget is a consideration, too.
“The 18-family building constructed on Emerson Plaza East during my first term pays six times the amount of taxes that the prior owner paid,” Lamatina noted at the same council meeting.
Beyond revitalizing the central business area, the need for more affordable housing is cited as another reason for the redevelopment project. Regulations require that Emerson must ensure adequate affordable housing, which could mean up to 454 affordable housing units. Twenty percent of the units built by JMF Properties in the downtown area would be reserved for affordable housing.
But the many say the affordable housing justification is nothing more than an excuse, noting that JMF Properties developer’s agreement explicitly states it will explore alternative sites to accommodate affordable housing.
“The borough wants development at any cost, and will violate my rights as a hard-working small-business owner to get it,” said Dan O’Brien, owner of Academy Electrical Contractors, Inc, in an Institute for Justice press release. “They’re using affordable housing as a smokescreen for this development, and they’re abusing the state’s redevelopment law in the process.”
Eminent domain abuse can prove costly for localities. Last year, an Essex County jury found that Bloomfield, NJ owed a small business nearly $3 million after it unjustly condemned property with eminent domain powers.
“Eminent domain is for public use, things like roads and schools—not private development,” said Christina Walsh, director of activism and coalitions at IJ, in a press release. “This isn’t about building affordable housing downtown…This is about condemning the property of hard-working small-business and homeowners for a private developer. Everyone in Emerson should be concerned about the borough’s actions—because if it can happen to Block 419, it can happen to anyone.”
“We’ve poured our heart and soul for our business to survive,” business owner O’Brien said. “This property is my retirement. They have ruined a lifetime of work if they take this from me.”