Many conservatives took affront to the Supreme Court ruling in the Kelo case, in which the court upheld the right of a city to use eminent domain to force property from one private owner to another. The decision was seen as yet another judicial overreach, an expansion of the notion of "public use" that left private-property owners vulnerable to the whims of state and local politicians looking for favors from developers and monied interests. It started a legislative reaction to curb the use of eminent domain around the nation.
Today the New York Times reports that some courts have heard the message. New Jersey's state Supreme Court slapped down a similar use of eminent domain, upholding the appeal of a property owner whose use displeased the town's leadership:
In a decision that could affect redevelopment battles across New Jersey, the State Supreme Court ruled unanimously yesterday that a town had overstepped the State Constitution’s definition of “blight” when it tried to take private property for development.
“Although community redevelopment is an important municipal power, that authority is not unfettered,” Chief Justice James R. Zazzali wrote in the court’s opinion. In the case, the town, Paulsboro, had argued that property owned by the Gallenthin family was “not fully productive,” and thus was in need of redevelopment, a designation that opened a 63-acre parcel to takeover using eminent domain.
The court disagreed. “The New Jersey Constitution does not permit government redevelopment of private property solely because the property is not used in an optimal manner,” Justice Zazzali wrote. He said that areas could be designated in need of redevelopment only if they, “as a whole, are stagnant and unproductive because of issues of title, diversity of ownership or other similar conditions.”
His opinion was at once a full-bodied discussion of what constitutes blight and a marker of the churning debate over eminent domain taking place in New Jersey and across the country since a United States Supreme Court ruling in 2005 that established the rights of localities to take over land for economic development.
The family whose land was at risk of takeover has owned it for 56 years. Paulsboro wanted it for community redevelopment, which usually means selling it cheap to someone who will raise the tax base of the city. The Gallenthin family objected to the exercise of eminent domain, but had lost repeatedly in the courts -- until now.
This could be an important victory for land-rights activism in the US. It's a state decision, so the legal impact is completely within New Jersey. However, the setback to government power over private property will hearten those enraged by the Kelo decision as at least a small victory. (h/t: CQ reader Keith R)