Homeowners win battle, but the war is not over


So, the Long Branch homeowners in the MTOTSA neighborhood have finally won a major battle, after years of litigation, protest and uncertainty.

They’ll be able to keep their homes in the beachfront neighborhood, and they’ll no longer have to worry that they’ll lose their residences to eminent domain.

But when all is said and done, this is a situation that should never have arisen in the first place. And you have to wonder who is going to apologize to these good people and make meaningful restitution for their needless suffering and emotional pain.

You also have to wonder how much this land grab by the city — and others like it in town — has, and will, cost community taxpayers before it’s all said and done.

It has already cost a bundle, and it will likely cost them more — according to at least one estimate, a lot more.

While homeowners in the MTOTSA neighborhood can finally rest more easily in their homes, the legal battles are far from over. Five homeowners in the neighborhood, including Denise and Lee Hoagland, refused to sign the agreement with the city that ended eminent domain actions in at least this Long Branch neighborhood, because they believed that by signing, they would have given up their rights to sue the city for all it put them through. For them, I don’t think an apology, which is unlikely to be proffered, will be enough.

I’ve written about this story many times in the last few years, so I won’t revisit all the details of the sad saga. But here are the main points in a nutshell:

The city fathers in Long Branch — led by longtime mayor Adam Schneider — wanted to increase the community’s tax base, and they figured one way to do it was to replace a number of homes in the Marine Terrace, Ocean Terrace and Seaview Avenue (MTOTSA) neighborhood with expensive, higher-density condominiums built by a private developer. They came up with a shaky and cynical reason to justify their plans, and bulled forward with little or no regard to the well-being of the residents in the area, or even the opinions of the state’s public advocate, who came down squarely on the side of the homeowners.

They paid no regard to the growing protests, or the fact that Long Branch was developing a reputation on the national level as the poster child for eminent domain abuse.

They scoffed at anyone who suggested they might be wrong and assured residents of the community that everything they were doing was for the best.

Events put the lie to that argument last week, when Long Branch officials (who finally realized that they could never ultimately prevail) and most of the MTOTSA residents signed an agreement in which the city said it would drop all eminent domain actions against the residents of the neighborhood, make up for all of the repairs and neglect that the neighborhood had suffered during the dispute and pay about $430,000 in attorney fees racked up by the residents, among other concessions.

That means that in the final analysis, the taxpayers in Long Branch will be the ones who’ll pick up the tab for the foolish and heartless actions of their elected officials.

And they obviously can’t afford it.

Long Branch, after all, is a city facing tough economic challenges. Its school district still receives a large chunk of its financing from the state because there isn’t enough tax revenue to pay for education. This year’s municipal budget was nearly impossible to write, because money is so tight, and there were dire predictions that next year, it will be even worse.

That’s a given now, considering the legal fees that must be paid according to the agreement.

I wonder if taxpayers in that community will ever get an accurate accounting of all the time and money that was wasted by their elected officials in this miserable effort.

Somehow, I doubt it. Councilman Brian Unger has called for such an accounting, and he says the idiotic quest has already cost taxpayers between $1 million and $2 million. Schneider and Company apparently did not welcome his request, and they won’t be jumping to comply.

I wonder if Schneider and his cronies (Unger being the exception) have learned a lesson.

Somehow, I doubt that also. Otherwise, they wouldn’t have been so loath to pass an ordinance prohibiting the city from taking properties by eminent domain in other redevelopment projects, like Beachfront South and the Broadway Gateway.

There’s no guarantee the city will prevail in its eminent domain actions in those areas, and judging by the state of the economy, the dismal real estate market that has developers backing out of similar projects nationwide, and the changing tide of court decisions against eminent domain takings, there’s a lot at stake. Unger estimates that the Beachfront South, Broadway Gateway and other projects could ultimately make local taxpayers liable for between $8 million and $10 million in legal fees and settlement liabilities.

It beggars belief they refuse to say no mas, and pass an ordinance saying that they’re done with eminent domain once and for all. But as of last week, they refused to do that. Schneider made a verbal commitment that eminent domainwas “off the table,” but those are a politician’s words, not actions.

And as I noted, there’s been no apology to the MTOTSA residents from city hall.

I don’t think they expect one and, knowing them, I imagine it’s enough for most to know they won’t wake up one morning to find bulldozers in the front yard, waiting to demolish their homes.

But even if Schneider et al. can’t find it in their puny, cold hearts to apologize to the MTOTSA residents, they ought to apologize to everyone else in Long Branch for wasting so much time and energy and so many taxpayer dollars.

And risking so much more in years to come.

If that apology, a real accounting and a promise to abandon eminent domain are not forthcoming, I hope Long Branch voters remember the “oversight” come election time. If they don’t, I’ll make it a point to remind them.

Gregory Bean is the former executive editor of Greater Media Newspapers. You can reach him at gbean@gmnews.com.