SCOTCH PLAINS, NJ – Following a contentious 20-minute discussion, the Township Council approved a resolution that would allow eminent domain in a 3 1/2 block radius in downtown Scotch Plains in a 3-2 party line vote on Tuesday evening at the Scotch Plains Municipal Building.
The resolution designates the right of the local government to potentially reassess private property for public use in the form of payment or compensation of fair market value, if necessary, as part of the downtown redevelopment process. Township leaders have stepped up redevelopment plans in recent months due to the ongoing COAH affordable housing litigation. Surrounding municipalities in Union County, including Fanwood, have undergone affordable housing litigation, which is being driven by the Fair Share Housing Center and enforced by the Supreme Court of the State of New Jersey.
The debated vote comes less than a week after the Downtown Redevelopment Committee’s second meeting, which evaluated the pros and cons, according to Scotch Plains Mayor Al Smith and Deputy Mayor Llewellyn Jones, both members of the newly-formed group. The counsel of the committee advised the governing body to include eminent domain on the plan as a "tool in their toolbox." Several local property owners are on the committee including Joe Mortarulo, managing partner of Darby Road on Park Ave.
“This is not an easy decision for me,” said Mayor Al Smith, who is chairman of the Downtown Redevelopment Committee. “We’ve got a new factor in this: Fair Share Housing There’s a lot of decisions that we have to make on behalf of our residents as their representatives. The last thing I want is somebody telling me what to do with or around my property.”
“An entire plan could potentially collapse because one property owner doesn’t want to sell their property,” Smith continued. “The court could then come in and dictate where they are going to build the property in the last place you want to be in Scotch Plains.”
Councilwoman Rose Checchio and Councilman John Del Sordi both voted no on the resolution.
“I want to see the Downtown Redevelopment move forward, but I just have a hard time (voting for this) because I would like to hear from the property owners first,” said Checchio, who added that she understands there are incentives and other positive takeaways. “I can’t vote yes on this until I have a better understanding how property owners in Scotch Plains feel about this.”
“If I lived on one of these streets around here, I wouldn’t want somebody having that ‘tool in their toolbox’ to dictate to me what they (decide to do) with my property for fair market value,” explained an impassioned Del Sordi. “Not while I’m ever up here will I support eminent domain and dictate to these people what they should do with their properties.”
He acknowledged the good work that the Scotch Plains Redevelopment Committee was doing and was encouraged with the progress that has been made.
Deputy Mayor Llewellyn Jones, who is also vice-chairman of the Scotch Plains Downtown Redevelopment Committee, refuted the claim that the public was left in the dark.
“I don’t think it should be a surprise to anybody that we’re talking about Downtown Redevelopment,” suggested Jones, who admitted that he was originally against the concept of eminent domain in Scotch Plains a couple years ago.
He added that two things have changed – the ongoing affordable housing litigation and the advice of the counsel.
“We have to keep in mind our responsibility to the entirety of the town,” Jones explained. “(Scotch Plains) is under pressure to undergo redevelopment and that’s being forced upon us by the Supreme Court of the State of New Jersey as we continue to negotiate hard in the town’s best interest.”
There are currently no immediate plans of enforcing eminent domain and in the event that issue arises, it is a lengthy process that involves both the council and Planning Board. The entire council was in agreement that it is something they would not like to see happen.
The Downtown Redevelopment Committee will host its next meeting on Wednesday, June 14 at 6:30 p.m. at Town Hall and the public is invited to attend.