By Dennis “DJ” Mikolay
Initially, it didn’t appear that the courts would provide relief for residents of MTOTSA, the quaint oceanfront community slated for demolition after Long Branch partnered with a private developer as part of an all-encompassing redevelopment plan. The first few attempts at using litigation as a means of combating eminent domain abuse proved dishearteningly futile. In City of Long Branch v. Anzalone, Judge Lawrence M. Lawson upheld the use of eminent domain, determining the city acted within the confines of the law when it declared the properties “blighted.”
Despite these initial setbacks, the anti-eminent domain abuse movement continued to gain traction and publicity. With the apparently unstoppable juggernaut of redevelopment looming over their daily lives, residents found themselves receiving the support of a diverse cross-section of the populace; the strangest of bedfellows and most unlikely of alliances formed on all sides of the political spectrum.
Congressman Frank Pallone, a progressive Democrat and Long Branch native, voiced solidarity with the property owners during a press conference on Ocean Terrace. He promised to introduce federal legislation that would limit the use of eminent domain to only the “most extreme” circumstances. State Public Advocate Ronald K. Chen also joined the fight. He appeared alongside MTOTSA homeowners and asked the Legislature to reform the law to protect homeowners against the “startling injustices” permitted under the existing protocol. It is also worth noting that the Private Property Rights Protection Act of 2005, co-sponsored by New Jersey Republican Congressmen Frank LoBiondo, passed in the House of Representatives (but never survived the Senate). It became increasingly clear both sides of the aisle were aware of the dangers the Kelo ruling presented and the treacherous precedent being set in Long Branch and elsewhere.
Though they received an outpouring of support from all facets of the community, in the opinion of many MTOTSA homeowners, the tide truly turned in their favor when the non-profit Institute for Justice took up their case pro-bono. The Institute was very familiar New Jersey’s eminent domain law, having previously represented Vera Coking, a widowed Atlantic City homeowner who made national headlines when real-estate mogul Donald Trump tried to seize her three-story home to build an addition to the Trump Plaza Casino and Hotel. The courts sided with Coking, a high-profile victory for property rights and a colossal embarrassment for Trump’s ambitions.
“Without the Institute for Justice, we would never have kept the house,” said Lori Ann Vendetti. “They did it pro-bono. Thank God there are people to donate to their organization.”
Additionally, new legal precedent would make it harder for the city to seize homes for private gain. In 2007, the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled (in Gallenthin v. Paulsboro) that a municipality couldn’t declare a property blighted solely because it wanted to redevelop it. In the wake of this standard, Long Branch’s attempts to redevelop MTOTSA failed to pass muster. A year later, a three-judge panel of the New Jersey Appellate Court reversed and remanded the Anzalone ruling. Thus, in September of 2009, Long Branch announced it was withdrawing the eminent domain actions against MTOTSA homeowners. Facing public criticism and legal uncertainty, the City Council also passed an ordinance barring itself from using eminent domain in Beachfront South, lifting the fog of uncertainty that engulfed the future of that oceanfront neighborhood.
Though MTOTSA was spared the wrecking ball, some homeowners never lived to see the day when they could again take comfort in knowing their property was safe. Lori Ann Vendetti’s father passed away before the settlement was reached, as did several other senior citizens whose properties were declared “blighted.”
“My dad died without knowing we kept our house,” she said. “There were a lot of senior citizens who died without knowing their homes were saved.”
Today, eminent domain is no longer a threat to Long Branch, but battle lines forged during the early days of the redevelopment remain largely intact. After years of fighting with homeowners, the City Council promised to respect their property rights; however, this didn’t change the fact that some of those who lived in the redevelopment zones had lost confidence in their local government. In many instances, trust has yet to be re-established between City Hall and residents of MTOTSA and, not surprisingly, those who found their homes and memories viewed as expendable still feel betrayed by their elected officials.
Driving through MTOTSA, one notices an abundance of lawn signs supporting mayoral candidate Avery Grant, proudly displayed reminders that many in this neighborhood—nay, this community—once slated for forcible demolition, now backs the city’s political opposition. Such has been the case for the last decade through the candidacies of Alfie Lenkiewicz and Brian Unger, though now that incumbent Mayor Adam Schneider is seeking an unprecedented seventh term, the opposition feels the time is truly ripe for a new voice in City Hall.
Avery Grant, a retired U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel and member of the Board of Education, has positioned himself as the mouthpiece of political change. His campaign seeks to provide responsive and accountable governance, immediately reconstruct the Hurricane Sandy damaged boardwalk, provide free beach access for all local residents, and institute term limits in city government. His years of activism and dedication on behalf of residents have made him one of the more familiar figures in Long Branch, though it was his long-time opposition to eminent domain abuse that earned him the greatest praise in MTOTSA.
“He [Avery Grant] is really one of a kind,” said Denise Hoagland. “I love his persistence in continuing to try and education people…I think he has done a great job and has been a staple in Long Branch for I don’t even know how many years. He is wonderful; I was happy to have him on our side. He never wavered and always stood with us, and now we’ll stand with him!”
This year’s election has been surprisingly tame compared to previous contests; the rhetoric and mudslinging of the Schneider versus Unger showdown is nowhere to be found. Yet the two camps still remain harshly divided. Mayor Schneider’s supporters view him as a successful leader, the man who rejuvenated Long Branch’s waterfront and managed to re-establish the city as a respected attraction; Avery Grant’s backers believe that after twenty-four years in office it is time for fresh leadership and a new vision.
Though it isn’t clear which world view will win out in the end, one thing remains certain: as long as there is a MTOTSA, a Pier Village, a Beachfront North and South, and a Broadway, the specter of eminent domain will continue to haunt Long Branch and its mayoral races. Local activists will make sure of that, whether the incumbents like it or not.