New Jersey Court Rules No Seizure of Underused Land Against Owner's Wishes

In a victory for private property rights, the state Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that local governments can't seize land against the owner's wishes simply because the property is underused.

The court ruled unanimously that only "blighted" areas are authorized under the state Constitution, and that the Legislature did not intend for eminent domain to be used when the sole basis is that the property is "not fully productive".

Government watchdogs have argued for years that eminent domain is being used too liberally by governments nationwide to advance development. The backlash has grown since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2005 that a Connecticut town could take over private homes on behalf of a real estate developer.

The New Jersey case centered on a 63-acre tract in Paulsboro made up mostly of wetlands just across the Delaware River from Philadelphia International Airport.

The family that owns the land started using it more than 100 years ago to dock boats carrying produce from southern New Jersey to Philadelphia. Over the last decade, though, the small industrial town of Paulsboro has been courting redevelopment, and in 2003, it included the property on a redevelopment plan.

The town planner at that time, George Stevenson, told the planning board there was no activity on the land and the community would be better served by having something there.

The owners sued to keep the land, and the high court sided with them.

"The New Jersey Constitution does not permit government redevelopment of private property solely because the property is not used in an optimal manner," Chief Justice James R. Zazzali wrote in the unanimous ruling.

The New Jersey Assembly has advanced a bill that would restrict eminent domain use, but the bill is stalled in the Senate.