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Sunday, February 05, 2006

Eminent domain, and New Jersey
If you are concerned about the Kelo decision by which the Supreme Court gave its blessing to the government taking your property to give to a developer, read today's Paul Mulshine column, Sic transit villages. Since the Star Ledger doesn't keep articles on file, here it is in its entirety (emphasis mine)
Sic transit villages
by Paul Mulshine
Sunday, February 05, 2006
I know what these town planners are thinking when they look at New Jersey's endless suburban sprawl.

They're thinking about London. Every time I go to England, I am impressed with how easy it is to get around without a car. I once spent a day touring the pubs of a small village just outside London with a local beer expert. Every pub was in some odd and intriguing old building. The best part was that at the end of the day I could get back on the train and be home in 25 minutes.

That's the sort of thing the planners wish to accomplish here. But they leave out one important detail: All of those wonderful little neighborhoods evolved in an era before planners. One of the pubs in question was built in 790, more than a millennium before planners came to plague the English-speaking world.

We're stuck with these people now. They've got designs for every inch of New Jersey. They can zone your property for condos from curb to curb. Or they can tell you that you can't even put a swing set in your own backyard. And if you don't like either of those alternatives, then they might just condemn your property and sell it to some developer who will carry out their plans.

This last practice is called "eminent domain." Eminent domain made the headlines last year when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the town of New Haven, Conn., could condemn a number of homes for a private redevelopment project. The city's theory was that this was good for the city because the new property owners would pay higher taxes than those they displaced.

If you think that's nutty, rest assured that New Jersey's approach is even nuttier. Our state also permits private property to be condemned for redevelopment. But in New Jersey, the developer not only gets the land on which you were paying taxes; he also gets a tax exemption. The original purpose of this approach, enshrined in our state constitution, was that such redevelopment would be done only in so-called "blighted" areas, areas such as the brownfields of Newark, decaying factories of Paterson, the downtown of Princeton ...

Downtown Princeton? I bet you're shocked to find out that the downtown of one of the most prestigious towns in America could be put in the same category with some of the worst eyesores in the country.

Not as shocked as the residents of Princeton were. A couple of years ago, I did a number of columns on how the people of Princeton woke up one morning to find that the "smart-growth" crowd had taken over their town under the blighted-area provisions of the state constitution. Before long the people of Princeton not only got an ugly five-story parking garage; they also got the bill for it.

Now the planners have their eye on Princeton Junction, the nearby section of West Windsor Township through which the Northeast Corridor rail line passes. A so-called "transit village" is being planned there. A little slice of London is to be parachuted in around the rail station. Theoretically, you'll be able to sit in a quiet pub until closing time and then take the last train to Clarksville, which is right down the road.

That's theoretically. In reality, predicts Bill Potter, a whole lot of property owners will be displaced for a project that's likely to bring more traffic and more crowding to an area that's already a nightmare of congestion. Potter, a lawyer in Princeton and an adjunct professor of environmental law at Rutgers, has been waging an unsuccessful fight to warn the people of West Windsor of what's about to hit them.

"They assume that everyone living there will be wealthy commuters without cars and that everyone is going to be riding the rails or a bicycle with no kids in school," said Potter.

That's the vision. And the people of West Windsor seemed to be buying it recently when I attended a town meeting there. Few had any objections when Mayor Shing-Fu Hsueh outlined his plans for the village. After the meeting, I spoke with Hsueh for a while.

"I'm a planner," he told me.

That's what I was afraid of. Hsueh, now retired, used to work for what is now the state Office of Smart Growth. These guys are all well-meaning, but a little too hopeful for my cynical tastes. Hsueh, for example, informed me that he didn't think the hundreds of units of new housing would pressure the township's already overcrowded school system. And he predicted that the town won't need to use eminent domain on the private properties in the zone, which is half the size of Hoboken.

I predict otherwise. Princeton Junction is among the most popular stations in New Jersey, within commuting distance of both New York and Philadelphia. It's an island in a sea of parking lots. Since this is America and not England, the residents of the new village will have cars that will need to be parked in the same space already packed with commuter cars. My back-of-the-envelope calculations show a need for a parking garage approximately the size of Giants Stadium.

And then there's the problem of getting all that new traffic across the tracks, which are now spanned by an obsolete two-lane bridge that has been there since roughly the days when Orson Welles' radio broadcast "War of the Worlds" was set in nearby Grovers Mill.

But it's the other Wells that comes to my mind every time I learn of one of these schemes: H.G. Along with writing "War of the Worlds," H.G. Wells also was the author of "The Time Machine."

A great concept. If only these planners had one, they might be able to go back and fill New Jersey with all of these little villages that are in their heads.

That would be wonderful for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that it would eliminate the need for planners.

Paul Mulshine is a Star-Ledger columnist.

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