Photo credit: BRIAN HICKEY/PHILLYVOICE
There seems to be a backlash going on against the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in the infamous case of Kelo v. City of New London. You may remember that this ruling allowed the government to take people’s homes for private development via eminent domain.
In the latest case on this issue, Charlie Birnbaum--a piano tuner--has been fighting to keep his family home (which is situated in the shadow of the Ocean Resort casino in NJ) from being seized by the State through eminent domain, on the premise that the State had no definitive plans for his property. This week, a New Jersey appellate court sided with Mr. Birnbaum. The state’s Casino Reinvestment Development Authority could not provide assurance that its plans for the property and surrounding area “would proceed in the reasonably foreseeable future,” the court ruled. Therefore, there was no immediate necessity for the taking (“necessity” is a required element in any eminent domain taking-where none exists, then the taking cannot go forward).
The court upheld an earlier decision by Superior Court Judge Julio Mendez, who ruled that the CRDA’s “proposed stockpiling of land for future redevelopment” was not sufficient justification to seize private property such as Birnbaum’s house. The CRDA had offered him $238,000.
Back in 2016, when the underlying case was first decided, the casino (then called Revel) had declared bankruptcy and shut down. Later another casino opened, called Ocean Resort. It too had crippling financial problems. Most recently, a New York hedge fund that was one of its largest lenders recently took over its control from Denver developer Bruce Deifik, as the financial losses continued to mount.
Pauline’s Prairie, the area around the casino, remains largely undeveloped. Close by, the Boardwalk has been rebuilt and a Northern New Jersey Developer, Wasseem Boraie, is leasing new apartments.
The Birnbaum’s home was originally purchased in 1969, by Charlie Birnbaum’s parents who were Holocaust survivors. His mother, Dora, lived there until 1998 when she was killed during a home invasion. Charlie Birnbaum currently lives in Hammonton with his wife, and rents out the upper floors and uses the first floor for his piano-tuning business.
Since a state takeover of Atlantic City, the CRDA has recently shifted its focus to help casinos and businesses focus more on issues affecting city residents. Sadly, nearly 40 percent of the residents live in poverty. Originally, the idea for the area around the Ocean Resort included a mixed use of “tourism-focused residential, retail, and commercial uses.”
Adam Gordon of the Fair Share Housing Center, which filed an amicus brief in the case, praised the ruling and said, “Eminent domain should not be used to displace working families and other low-income communities as part of a wholly speculative development scheme with no demonstrated public benefit.” We wholeheartedly agree.
As with several of our blog posts, we touch on subjects that have been in the news for months and often years. The long-planned Gowanus Canal tank project is one such case.
Originally, the city was going to use two underground sewage tanks along the Gowanus Canal to divert raw waste from the waterway. Instead, Officials with the City’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) say that they will store 16 million gallons of sewage overflow—four million more than the two planned tanks. Some of the benefits to this new plan include decreased construction impact, and its potential to allow for more public space.
This blog post has to include some eminent domain news, and here it is: Last April, the New York City Council gave DEP the green light to use eminent domain to commandeer 234 Butler Street and 242 Nevins Street as the home for the larger tank and a new water filtration facility known as the headhouse. Meanwhile, the second, smaller tank was slated for a city-owned lot on Second Avenue near the Fourth Street Turning Basin.
But now, all of that has changed. In October city officials said that a half-mile, soft ground tunnel up to 150 feet beneath the earth that will store 16 million gallons of sewage overflow. Do the math and you’ll realize that it’s more than the tanks combined total. The good news is that the extra capacity would help in gathering waste and storm runoff that would typically pour into the canal, after treatment at the head house. The ability to hold more fluid means that the tunnel would prevent additional weather events from dumping millions of gallons of filth into the canal.
The new design also has a new price tag. It’s estimated that the tunnel would cost $50 million more than the original plan’s $1.2 billion price tag. That price includes land acquisition, head house construction, the creation of public space, and the installation of both tanks.
Also of note is the ability for the tunnel to be expanded. An important factor to look at is the rezoning that will be taking place at Gowanus, with new residential buildings and the resulting population growth.
This story is definitely to be continued, as EPA officials could not comment during the recent government shutdown.