EMERSON, N.J. — Stop Emerson Eminent Domain (SEED) – a group of small business owners and residents – have a powerful new ally in their fight to stop the use of eminent domain downtown: the Institute for Justice.
The Virginia-based institute, a nonprofit public interest law firm, is the nation’s leading advocate against eminent domain abuse.
The institute is making three demands of Mayor Lou Lamatina and the Borough Council.
“The Institute for Justice urges you to rescind your designation of Block 419 as a condemnation redevelopment zone,” the letter reads.
It also calls on the governing body to decommission its study of Emerson’s Central Business District and to “publicly disavow the use of eminent domain for private development.”
At issue are two moves made by local government.
First is the study of the so-called redevelopment area, which extends along the Kinderkamack Road corridor from the Westwood border south to the Oradell border.
Second is the designation of part of that area, namely Block 419, as a condemnation zone.
There are a variety of small businesses on streets zoned for light manufacturing in the borough.
Some businesses are in Block 419: others have been removed from condemnation consideration.
All the business owners are wary or angry.
The designation of the condemnation zone, which makes condemnation a possibility, makes way for a JMF Properties project.
It wants to build a two-building, four-story, multi-use development, complete with parking garage. Some lots may be needed to achieve the dream.
“We invested heavily in Emerson at a time of economic downturn,” said Todd Bradbury, owner of Bradbury Landscape and SEED spokesman.
He pointed out that no court ordered the creation of a condemnation zone.
“It was an elective move by the governing body,” he said. “We are not going to sit back and watch the next block fall.”
Lamatina and other officials have repeatedly said the JMF project is needed to help fulfill the borough’s affordable housing requirements.
They’ve said the project will help avoid intense and overly dense development in “inappropriate locations.”
But Christina Walsh, the institute’s director of activism and coalitions, disagrees that the downtown area is the only option.
In her letter, she stated that Emerson’s agreement with JMF clearly states that both sides will explore building affordable housing at other locations in Emerson.
“Leveraging the fear of overdevelopment to rally support for the condemnation of innocent property owners is manipulative and shameful,” Walsh wrote.
A variety of small business owners have been vocal in their opposition to the plans as they’ve unfolded.
They include but are not limited to Bradbury, Ken Petrow of Star Properties, Toni Plantamura-Rossi of Dairy Queen and Dan O’Brien of Academy Electrical Contractors.
“It renews your faith a little bit in mankind when you feel you’re getting crushed and there’s this group to help,” Bradbury said.
“In times like this, you recognize the importance of groups like the ACLU and the Institute for Justice.”
Mayor Lamatina, a lawyer, will be available for comment later in the week.