Eminent Domain Reform Advances In The Garden State

by:  Peter J. Gallagher

New Jersey is one step closer to updating its eminent domain laws for the first time since the U.S. Supreme Court handed downs its landmark Kelo v. City of New London decision in 2005. On March 4, 2013, the Senate Community and Urban Affairs Committee voted unanimously to approve a bill (S-2447) that would, according to a press release from Senate Democrats, “create a two-track system for redevelopment, establishing separate requirements for redevelopment projects that would involve condemnation and for those that would not.” The two tracks would protect homeowners whose properties might otherwise be subject to condemnation, while also creating a more streamlined process for municipalities undertaking redevelopment projects that do not involve condemnation.

According to the press release:

The legislation would require municipalities to advise property owners within a proposed redevelopment area of the municipality’s intent to use or not use eminent domain to facilitate a redevelopment plan at the outset of the redevelopment study as well as to provide specific notice of such designation. Unless a municipality notifies owners of property located in a proposed redevelopment area that the designation will allow the municipality to take property located in the area by eminent domain – or that the proposed area is a Condemnation Redevelopment Area – the “Local Redevelopment Housing Law” would not authorize the use of eminent domain.

The bill would also authorize municipalities that intend to implement redevelopment initiatives without using eminent domain to do so but to still take advantage of the other tools available under the LRHL that encourage and facilitate economic development activities, create job opportunities, increase commerce, and enhance ratable values within their communities during these difficult economic times. This process would require designating the proposed area as a Non-Condemnation Redevelopment Area.

Having made it out of the Senate Community and Urban Affairs Committee, the bill now heads to the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee. Stay tuned for more updates.

“Signs, Signs, Everywhere Signs:” New Jersey Supreme Court Holds That Homeowners’ Associations Cannot Ban Political Signs

by:  Peter J. Gallagher 

It is an issue we have reported on before (here), but yesterday the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled that homeowners’ associations may not entirely ban homeowners from displaying political signs.  In Mazdabrook Commons Homeowners' Association v. Khan, the New Jersey Supreme Court held that homeowners' associations are allowed to impose reasonable content-neutral rules (e.g., regulating the size, number, and location) of signs, but cannot ban them outright and cannot, even under the guise of reasonable content-neutral rules, “distinguish among different types of political signs.”  This decision is obviously important to community associations, but also has a broader impact because it reiterates the New Jersey Supreme Court’s belief that individual rights identified in the New Jersey Constitution are protected, not against abridgment by the government, but also by certain conduct from private entities. 

 Jude Wefing, sitting by assignment from the Appellate Division, was the lone dissenter.  She criticized the majority for both reaching the constitutional issue in the first place, and for its decision on that issue.  In connection with the former, Judge Wefing noted that the dispute between the parties centered primarily on fines related to the homeowners’ growing of a “rose vine” over the homeowners’ association’s objections about the size and placement of the “vine.”  (In a footnote, Judge Wefing noted that she referred to the offending plant as a “rose vine” only because the majority did so, even though “[a] rose is a shrub, not a vine,” and thus “the plant in question must have been a climbing rose.”)  As a result, the record regarding the issue with the political signs was too sparse, in Judge Wefing’s opinion, to justify reaching the broader constitutional issue. 

When it came to the substantive issue, Judge Wefing parted with her colleagues on a more fundamental level:

My colleagues rightly note our nation’s and our state’s commitment to a free and vigorous debate of public questions. I have no quarrel with that commitment; I embrace it. In my judgment, however, individuals are equally entitled to seek shelter from political debate and division. If a group of individuals wish to live in a common-interest community that precludes the posting of signs, political or otherwise, and have agreed freely to do so, and there is no showing of overreaching or coercion, I would adopt the principles enunciated in [the] dissent in the Appellate Division, that these mutually-agreed upon covenants ran with the land, were reasonable, and were enforceable.

Based on these principles, Judge Wefing concluded: “Some may question the choice to avoid political controversy; I simply recognize the right to make that choice.”