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?”