By Dennis “DJ” Mikolay
It is almost tradition at this point: every four years, Long Branch inevitably finds itself a city divided. With the non-partisan mayoral election now less than a month away, the showdown between those who support the incumbent and those who back the challenger is almost preordained. True, such is typical of electoral races, though the seaside city has seen more than its fair share of exceptionally divisive, polarizing contests over the years; nasty campaigns from as far back as two decades are still discussed to this day, their ramifications readily visible.
Emotions run so high during Long Branch’s short campaign season for a number of reasons, though the memory of the controversial redevelopment plan, launched in the late 1990s, is the most easy to pinpoint. Though still technically a work in progress, the city’s reinvention completely altered the makeup of several neighborhoods, not by chance, but by design. Through the use of eminent domain, the city targeted entire communities for mandatory demolition, and in some cases succeeded in doing just that, with the intention of replacing them with pricey town homes and upscale condominiums. It was a chapter of history that many residents, particularly those who live in the redevelopment zones, remember vividly.
Though many communities were earmarked to be razed, the most high profile was likely the area commonly referred to as “MTOTSA,” which stands for: Marine Terrace, Ocean Terrace, and Seaview Avenues. A neighborhood of bungalows, the likes of which are typical of the Jersey Shore, MTOTSA is located only a stone’s throw from the picturesque beaches, making it ideal real estate. Many of the houses were owned by families whose involvement in the city stretched back generations, and while most were of moderate nature, this was one of the more aesthetically appealing parts of town, even at the height of the city’s troubles. It was a well-kept sanctuary within a city that is widely viewed as being in decline.
Thus, residents had little to fear when local officials announced a redevelopment plan, intended to combat blight. They were, after all, several blocks north of the redevelopment’s focal point, the footprint of the once-prized pier and Kids World amusement park, which laid in ruins after being destroyed by a fire in 1986. MTOTSA was free of the decrepit vacancies redevelopers hoped to eradicate, as evidenced by the fact the proposal promoted “infill” on these three streets, so there was no reason to be anything other than optimistic. In other words, existing structures were to remain intact and new homes would be integrated on already-empty lots, a project likened to a “valuable patchwork quilt” by those who crafted the plan.
“We did, back in 1996, go to see what the proposed development was,” said Lori Ann Vendetti, a resident of Ocean Terrace. “Our three block neighborhood said: ‘infill of empty lots.’ That was the idea; they were going to fill empty lots. It was only when we started seeing houses being demolished that we said: ‘wait a second here.’”
Denise Hoagland, who moved to MTOTSA in the 1990s, had a similar experience.
“Back in 1996, the redevelopment was commonly referred to as revitalization,’” Hoagland said. “Then, all of a sudden in 1998, it turned into a ‘redevelopment.’ Revitalization means to replenish something, to restore, to recoup and bring back; redevelopment means to basically flatten and take away…there were two different visions.”
“The plan they proposed wasn’t the plan that happened,” Vendetti clarified.
Though Lori Ann Vendetti didn’t move to the city until the mid-1990s, her father purchased a summer cottage there during her youth, and eventually resided their year-round. She knew Long Branch well, and like many new homeowners, received a welcome letter from Mayor Adam Schneider shortly after moving in.
Soon, however, things took an unfortunate turn: MTOSTA was declared blighted. Homeowners were forced to sell or have their property seized via eminent domain. As Vendetti stated, there wasn’t much warning, and like most residents, Hoagland also didn’t realize something was amiss until houses in a neighboring part of the redevelopment zone—Beachfront North Phase I—were bought out and knocked down.
“We had several neighbors to the south of us who literally got peanuts for their property after being forced to sell,” she said. “They didn’t educate themselves well enough to defend themselves.”
Once acquired, the land in MTOTSA would be turned over to private developers so upscale townhouses and condominiums could be built, as had been the practice in the other parts of town. This was the fallout from Kelo vs. New London, a Supreme Court ruling that determined increased tax revenue fulfilled the “public use” criteria needed to evoke eminent domain, which had typically been reserved for things like highway projects and other large scale, government ventures.
MTOTSA residents, determined to fight for their property, approached their elected officials for help, though meetings with the Mayor and City Council proved futile.
“Basically, what we were told in a nutshell, is: ‘your neighborhood is never going to be saved—its over,’” said Vendetti. “They thought we were too late to save it and wanted to know where we were when this [the proposals] was all happening. Well, we weren’t told what was happening!”
Determined to rescue their homes and all the memories within, residents formed the Marine Terrace, Ocean Terrace, and Seaview Avenue Alliance, which eventually partnered with the Institute for Justice. By the early 2000s, Long Branch was at the forefront of the nation’s eminent domain debate, ground zero in the battle for property rights.
To be continued in Part II….