Eminent domain seizures are making headlines approximately once a month in the United States. The loss of private property for public or economic development has either increased in recent years, or is simply gathering more media coverage due to angst voiced by owners on social networking platforms that is then picked up by traditional journalism outlets. In New Jersey, an elderly man may lose the home his family has owned for 45 years. Charles Birnbaum, 67, does not want to leave the three-story brick walkup in Atlantic City, but he may not have a choice.
The New Jersey Casino Reinvestment Development Authority (CRDA) has included Charles Birnbaum’s property on the list of properties targeted for eminent domain seizure near the Revel Casino Hotel. The elderly man’s attorneys contested the move in Atlantic County Superior Court last week. Insititute for Justice senior attorney Robert McNamara argued that the CRDA has not yet justified why the entity is entitled to seizure Birnbaum’s home via eminent domain statutes.
The Virginia-based Institute for Justice lawyer said, “There’s no plan. There’s no particular thing for which this property is being taken.” According to McNamara, the New Jersey agency is merely following a “condemn first, decide what to do later” policy. Birnbaum’s Oriental Avenue property is part of the South Inlet neighborhood which has been designated for mixed-use development.
Birnbaum’s parents were Holocaust survivors who purchased the home in 1969. The New Jersey senior citizen said that buying the property was the first step his parents took towards achieving the American dream and starting a new life. His parents were able to stay in the home instead of being moved into a care facility as they aged. Birnbaum’s mother lived in part of the three-story buildng until she was murdered in 1998.
Charles Birnbaum had this to say about eminent domain being used to take his home away:
“If somebody said, ‘Charles, there is going to be a park here. We’re having a road that’s coming through.’ I would have accepted it and said, ‘So be it. Let’s make Atlantic City better.’ What they have given me is something so unsatisfying it doesn’t do it for me. The house was never for sale and it wasn’t for sale to the CRDA. It would be a big hole in my life if they succeed and I lose the home.”
The 67-year-old man said he has worked diligently over the decades to maintain the brick building. He turned the upper floors into apartments and rents the first floor as a piano studio and operates his piano tuning business out of the same space. Birnbaum said there is no amount of money that would make him want to sell the family home.
CRDA attorney Stuart Lederman stated in court that the agency does not divulge “exact details” about future uses of land. “This state has recognized that the economic engine of the casinos in Atlantic City is vital to the success of the state of New Jersey. That’s the public purpose here,” Lederman said.
The logic used by the New Jersey casino agency to convey a public purpose as required in eminent domain seizures, could just as easily be applied to any economic development in any state or town. Do you think the case illustrates a weakening of property rights in America?