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Opinion: 'Blighted' by Any Other Name . . .

The law forbids the use of the 'B' word, but 'redevelopment' is just playing games with language.

Question:

What do you suppose the Latin American Auto Body Shop has in common with Madison Iron Works, the River Clarke film studios, and the Frayed Knot bric-a-brac store?

Answer:

Besides the fact that all four are viable, long-term businesses, a group of consultants hired by the City of Hoboken has tarred them with the label of being "blighted."

But of course these same consultants never use the term "blighted" to describe these and other properties they studied in the southwest corner of the Square Mile City. They prefer to use the misleading term "in need of redevelopment," as authorized by one of the worst laws ever enacted by the legislature.

If an car dealer who mislabels a Ford as a Cadillac is guilty of fraud -- and he is, albeit an obvious fraud -- the legislature committed sleight of hand when it replaced the "Blighted Areas Act" of 1951 with the innocuous sounding "Local Redevelopment and Housing Law" of 1992.

Shamelessly, the LRHL dispensed with the "negative" term "blighted," which appears in Art. VIII, sec 3, par 1 of the State Constitution, and replaced it with the cheery "redevelopment area."

It reminds me of how the Atomic Energy Commission in the 1950s looked for a soothing word for "ionizing radiation" to quiet public fears, and tried calling gamma rays, "sunshine units."

But that was a short lived blunder, not so with the 1992 law: the LRHL endures to this day.

Since its enactment, many municipal councils have been misled into assuming they can declare "nonblighted" properties -- such as the four aforementioned Hoboken businesses -- part of a redevelopment area, later to be transferable to redeveloper of the city's choice, using eminent domain (condemnation), if need be, to take those properties from their owners.

For example, in Union Township a few years back, this attorney was defending a dentist whose medical office building was squarely in the eminent domain bullseye, all because a consultant had declared the site to be a "redevelopment area," while openly disclaiming any use of the word "blight."

When I pointed out that "redevelopment" is a statutory euphemism for "blighted," township attorneys hastened to object to my use of that "odious word." Later, a township councilman remarked, "What's all this I hear about blight? I don't see any blight here, I just see a redevelopment area."

And so comes the frequent descent into eminent domain abuse -- the taking of viable, nonblighted properties to hand over to big name redevelopers who promise pie in the sky at no cost to taxpayers -- hastened along on the slippery slope of a statutory euphemism.

Thankfully, the State Supreme Court has forcefully stepped in to remind local governments, planners, and lower courts that regardless of the name lawmakers choose, only "actually blighted properties" may be included within "deemed redevelopment areas," and doing so cannot be based on claims that the properties will be put to a better use after transfer to someone else.

The wake up call to local governments was the "Gallenthin v. Paulsboro" case handed down in the summer of 2007. (Disclosure: this law firm represented Gallenthin, and my law partner orally argued the appeal that was supported by the Public Advocate, Ronald Chen.)

Let's get back to Hoboken and its efforts to "blight" those four going-concern businesses. (Further disclosure: I represent the owners of the buildings where all but the Frayed Knot are tenants.) On what basis do the city's consultants -- a planner, an architect, and an engineer, all hired to investigate Hoboken's southwest area -- claim they are, ahem, blighted?

Because, the consultants say, there have been too many traffic accidents in front of them, and this causes a "potential detriment" to public health and safety, such that these business owners may be held responsible and possibly lose their properties to the City. Exactly how many accidents? They say there have been 53 over a recent three-year period on this block of Newark Street, a rate of one fender bender every three weeks.

So, on that thin-ice basis, Hoboken's consulting team believes the city should have the power to take these (among other) businesses to "redevelop" that busy block of Newark Street into an urban planner's dream -- in which bumpers will not collide and traffic will move smoothly.

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