Tenants, vacant-lot owners concerned about condemnation

Connaught Hill residents are wondering if they would lose their land and homes to the city’s redevelopment project.

By: Linda Seida
   LAMBERTVILLE — Property owners and tenants on Connaught Hill peppered officials with questions Tuesday, wondering if they would lose their land and homes to the city’s redevelopment project.
   Some property owners said they never received proper notification their land was targeted as part of the redevelopment site even though the city said certified letters were delivered. Others worried about being forced to sell at prices they considered less than fair market value.
   A public meeting to address their concerns will be held March 14 at 7:30 p.m. in the Justice Center on South Union Street. In the meantime, the city will research the notification process and make sure those who should have been notified actually were, according to Mayor David Del Vecchio.
   In 2002, the City Council took the first step in the redevelopment process when it approved the plan for Connaught Hill. The city requested proposals from developers the following year. Raritan Valley Habitat for Humanity and Hart Enterprises were the only developers who responded. The city approved Habitat for Humanity’s plan for four houses in December 2003 and Donald Hart’s proposal to construct 11 houses last year.
   Mayor Del Vecchio said the city first became involved in Connaught Hill at the request of neighborhood residents, who began complaining years ago about unsafe and unhealthy conditions.
   "We had many meetings with Connaught Hill residents who said, ‘You guys aren’t doing enough up here,’" Mayor Del Vecchio said.
   The city responded with a series of actions designed to improve the neighborhood. The city enacted an abandoned car ordinance and cleaned up old, discarded tires. In the works is a pocket park for the area and a $1 million drainage project that is now out to bid.
   But it’s the redevelopment plan for the site that is causing the most upset right now. Some residents and property owners on the hill are worried the city’s redevelopment plan will encroach on their rights as property owners, forcing them to lose land they’d rather keep.
   Municipal, state and federal governments all have the right of eminent domain, which means they can condemn private property and force it to be sold for the purpose of public good. If governments are successful, they must compensate the property owners.
   To ease some of the residents’ worries, Mayor Del Vecchio emphasized, "Owner-occupied properties have not, are not and will not be a target of this plan."
   Owners of vacant lots or lots housing tenants remained concerned their properties would be a target and added they weren’t even notified properly. Landowner Peggy Leach said the only notification she received came not from the city, but from her brother, Jimmy Fry, who lives on the lot adjacent to her property.
   Mrs. Leach said it took about six years to get the title to her 25-foot by 125-foot lot, and she had to research back through 100 years of ownership to do it. Many titles to lots on the hill are not clear, and it is a difficult and time-consuming task to determine who owns some of the parcels.
   Mrs. Leach’s lot is not large enough to build a house on. But if a developer were to combine her lot with others, a house could be constructed there. But that’s not what Mrs. Leach wants to do with her land.
   "I don’t want a house there. I like the trees there," she said. Furthermore, "I have no desire to sell."
   Mr. Fry said he considered paying his sister $10,000 for the land. A developer recently offered her only $8,000, he said.
   "If she doesn’t (sell), they’ll condemn," Mr. Fry said. "That’s terrible."
   City attorney Philip Faherty said even if a property were to be condemned, the property owner must be compensated at fair market value as determined by a panel of judges.
   Harry Buchanan owns numerous lots on the hill, some of which house tenants. He also holds tax liens on other lots. Like Mrs. Leach, he did not receive notification, according to his daughter, Harriet Canik of Raritan Township. The city, however, said Mr. Buchanan was properly notified.
   Some of Mr. Buchanan’s properties are rented. When the city began a campaign to clean up some of the unsightliness on Connaught Hill, he and other landowners were given two years to bring their properties up to code. Still, they are slated for redevelopment now.
   Mrs. Canik said many improvements have been made to bring the properties into compliance but no one from the city has inspected them to see the upgrades. The city agreed to send out an inspector.
   Mrs. Canik disputed the idea of a developer for the city offering fair market value for the lots. She said her father recently sold a lot for $84,000. Others, she said, are listed for sale at $89,900 with an assessed value of $94,000. Another of her father’s lots went to Habitat for Humanity for $70,000, she said.
   According to Mrs. Canik, Hart Enterprises, one of the approved developers for Connaught Hill, offered to purchase three of Mr. Buchanan’s lots for about $30,000 each, then recently upped the offer to $52,500.
   Some of Mr. Buchanan’s tenants attended the meeting Tuesday to express their worry over losing their homes.
   "I want to know yes or no: Am I going to be kicked out of that house?" one renter asked. "I don’t want to go anywhere else. I want to stay right there."
   Councilwoman Cynthia Ege wants to know, too. She asked for a breakdown on the lots to determine which are vacant and which house tenants.
   Renters who are displaced as a result of condemnation would be entitled to aid.
   "We have to find you a new place to live, and we have to pay to move you there," said Robert Roesener, the city’s attorney for the redevelopment project.