Man Defeats Eminent Domain Effort to Take His Home for Casino Developers

‘If we’re in the way of progress, I want to know what that progress is…’

Appellate Court Restricts New Jersey City's Eminent Domain Powers 1

Charlie Birnbaum/PHOTO: Institute for Justice

(Kaylee McGhee, Liberty Headlines) An Atlantic City resident successfully fought to keep a New Jersey government agency from destroying his family home after the state targeted it to make way for a “mixed-use project.”

The New Jersey Appellate Division ruled that the state Casino Reinvestment and Development Authority cannot take Charlie Birnbaum’s inherited family home from him, in a major victory for property rights.

The long-running court battle began when the state tried to seize Birnbaum’s family home for a development project that it couldn’t explain or identify, according to the Institute for Justice, which represented Birnbaum.

“If they were to say, ‘Charlie, the development here is going to be extensive and you’re in the way of an absolute necessity,’ I’d say, ‘Wonderful, I’m out of here,'” Birnbaum told the Philly Voice. “I’m not against Atlantic City. I want to see the city thrive.

“If we’re in the way of progress, I want to know what that progress is. It’s not an unreasonable request. They’ve said we don’t have to answer that question. It’s as if they can’t tolerate that someone is challenging their power, saying that their power has some limits,” he continued.

Birnbaum’s parents, both Holocaust survivors who were able escape Nazi Germany after seeing most of their families executed, bought the family home in 1969 for $13,000.

The CRDA offered Birnbaum a take-it-or-leave-it offer of $238,500 in 2012 for the home, but Birnbaum said he wasn’t willing to part with it without a good reason.

The court agreed with him and said the CRDA was acting like a land speculator, taking citizens’ private property by force with little more than a hope to put it to some unspecified use in the future.

“Under these highly unusual circumstances, it was reasonable for the judge to question whether the Project would proceed in the foreseeable future. … CRDA was attempting to ‘bank land in hopes that it will be used in a future undefined project,’ Judge Julio Mendez said in the court’s ruling.

“Approval of the condemnation could well leave the Birnbaum property vacant for an indefinite period of time, as the CRDA ‘wait[s] for the right project to present itself.’ … We affirm, because the CRDA could not provide evidence-based assurances that the Project would proceed in the reasonably foreseeable future,” Mendez said.

Robert McNamara, a senior attorney for the Institute for Justice, praised the ruling as an important stand against the abuses of government.

“Today’s opinion is a victory for property owners in New Jersey and nationwide,” McNamara said in a statement. “The power to seize private property through eminent domain is one of the government’s most frightening powers, and today’s opinion reaffirms that it can only be used for good reason—and that courts will stand in the way if government officials try to do otherwise.”