A.C. homeowner combating eminent domain sees no good reason

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Charlie Birnbaum stands on his roof with the closed Revel Casino Hotel in the background. "I don't think I'm in anybody's way whatsoever," he said. (MEL EVANS / AP, File)

Charlie Birnbaum stands on his roof with the closed Revel Casino Hotel in the background. “I don’t think I’m in anybody’s way whatsoever,” he said. (MEL EVANS / AP, File)

ATLANTIC CITY – Charlie Birnbaum, piano tuner, homeowner, landlord, son of Holocaust survivors and famed eminent domain resister, had a message for Atlantic City about trying to take the family house, which overlooks a vast undeveloped area near the failed Revel casino.

“Do you need more of nothing?” he said after final arguments were presented Tuesday to Superior Court Judge Julio Mendez in his dispute with the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority (CRDA). “I think they have plenty of nothing already.”

Nobody could argue that point.

Charlie Birnbaum's family home

Charlie Birnbaum’s family home

Birnbaum’s three-story family home on Oriental Avenue – he rents out the top two floors and uses the ground floor for his piano-tuning business – looks out onto a swath of long-vacant land in the South Inlet.

But CRDA attorney Stuart Lederman argued that the state-legislated tourism district was sufficient “public purpose” to go forward with eminent domain to take the Birnbaum house, which his parents bought for $16,000 in 1969, and where his mother was murdered by an intruder in 1998.

Birnbaum, 67, lives in Hammonton.

Lederman said the CRDA’s broad goal of a mixed-use development connected with a larger lighthouse-area redevelopment was sufficient justification. The Revel casino, which envisioned a developed neighborhood around it, went bankrupt, shut down, and was sold during the course of the action against Birnbaum.

In any case, Lederman said, “the Revel is irrelevant to this proceeding.” The goal is “to promote non-casino revenue.”

“Atlantic City has suffered and continues to suffer,” he said. “The CRDA did not make this decision alone. It was done by the Legislature.”

Robert McNamara, senior attorney with the Arlington, Va.-based Institute for Justice, which has taken on Birnbaum’s cause, said that the project was “originally driven by private consultants to the Revel casino.”

The current stated purpose – encouraging development in the tourism district – would fall under “economic development” – a purpose for which New Jersey requires a declaration of blight.

“This is a blue-sky taking to build something at some point,” McNamara said, adding that courts across the country have rejected similarly vague plans as justification.

The CRDA, which offered Birnbaum $240,000, did not attempt to declare Birnbaum’s house or the surrounding neighborhood blighted. It contends that the tourism-district legislation supplies sufficient public purpose – akin to building a road, a library, or a school – to allow eminent domain.

“Do you need the Birnbaums’ home for what you need to do there?” Mendez asked Lederman.

Lederman said proving “necessity” to the judge would only be required if there was a showing of bad faith or abuse of discretion.

Mendez countered that Birnbaum contends the CRDA has, in effect, “cherry picked” his property for seizing, while leaving vacant lots across the street – some of which are for sale – alone.

Lederman said the CRDA had determined Birnbaum’s house was part of its future plans. It said it left out some low- and moderate-income housing, as that would be consistent with future development of the neighborhood.

McNamara said that in this case it was necessary for the CRDA to be specific about what would replace Birnbaum’s house, as that would determine if it was for a broad definition of economic development, or for a specific public purpose, like a park. That would then determine the right of the CRDA to take the property.

Mendez, who has been hearing arguments on this case since May, said he would issue a ruling in the next several days.

The CRDA recently approved a $30 million loan for Boraie Development L.L.C. to partner with Shaquille O’Neal to build a mid-rise apartment building and mixed-use development nearby.

“This isn’t an isolated project,” Lederman said. “The promotion of tourism is a valid public purpose.”

Birnbaum said he does not want to stand in the way of a legitimate purpose, but is still waiting to hear one.

“I don’t think I’m in anybody’s way whatsoever,” he said. “If I was in the middle of something specific, that would have made sense – but after two years, it’s still, what are the basic plans that my property is so critical to be destroyed?”