SUSSEX COUNTY-Local attorneys and politicians countywide greeted last week's Supreme Court decision on eminent domain with mixed feelings. The split 5-4 decision by the nation's highest court has given local governments nationwide the right to condemn land even for private, corporate use, provided that any such project can be shown to have a "public purpose" in mind. "I don't believe it's an abuse of the eminent domain power because the court ruled that it was based upon good planning by the town," commented Richard Clark of the Sparta-based law firm of Laddey, Clark & Ryan. Clark also serves as borough attorney for Franklin. "It didn't do it willy-nilly," Clark added. "The town (of New London, Conn.) had a good, solid reason for doing it this way." "I think it's dangerous," said Byram mayor Eskil "Skip" Danielson, who is also Sussex County's director of emergency management. "Eminent domain has its place, but the use of it in this case to promote private enterprise is not what it should be." In the case of Kelo vs. New London, Connecticut, a group of homeowners along the Thames River fought that city's 2000 decision to condemn their land in order to make way for a redevelopment project that would permit a large pharmaceutical firm to expand its operations, along with a hotel and riverfront office project. That decision was later upheld by the Connecticut Supreme Court before eventually making its way to the Supreme Court. Traditionally, eminent domain has usually referred to the taking of private land and homes in order to build highways, parks and other public works. In the case decided by the court, the mayority ruled that "promoting economic development" will not affect the Fifth Amendment's concern over the taking of "private property
for public use" without just compensation. "Because that plan unquestionably serves a public purpose, the takings challenged here satisfy the Fifth Amendment," the majority opinion said. In the minority opinion, however, justices Sandra Day O'Connor, Clarence Thomas, Chief Justice William Rehnquist and Anthony Scalia warned that "Any property may now be taken for the benefit of another private party, but the fallout from this decision will not be random
As for the victims, the government now has license to transfer property from those with fewer resources to those with more. The Founders cannot have intended this perverse result." In Byram, eminent domain does not come into play with the intended widening of Route 206, which "is completely within the right of way of the State of New Jersey," Danielson said. "That's a separate issue. Eminent domain will not play a role in the widening of 206." When asked to comment on last week's Supreme Court ruling, attorney Carl Nelson of the Franklin-based Koch & Nelson law firm admitted he was ambivalent. "I suppose it's a tool that's been found to exist in the government, that, if used prudently, is in everyone's best interest, but subject to possible abuse," Nelson replied. "That's the way I view it. I think in general most people in (government) are there to do the right thing, but in situations where they don't, it can really be a big problem. The power doesn't concern me as much as the application of it." According to published reports, as many as 55 towns statewideat least some of which involve "blighted" areascould be affected by the Kelo Vs. New London ruling. Joseph Ragno, the Vernon Township Attorney who is a partner with the Riverdale-based firm of Struble, Ragno, Petrie, MacMahon and Cotroneo, said that the concept of taking private land to expand the public tax base is troublesome. "I understand the need for eminent domain, and I don't disagree with the power, but personally I felt it went a bit too far in giving power to government," Ragno commented. "This just might have been a case of a bad fact pattern making bad law." Does the ruling now give cause for the average homeowner to worry about their homes? "I don't think so because in any other decision of the law it's how it's applied," Danielson responded. "I always look at Supreme Court cases as guidelines, but it is open to interpretation. I think we have to be watchful, but not fearful."