Residents leery of phrase ‘eminent domain’ after controversial history

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Town residents in Leonia say that they are concerned by a letter sent to homeowners about a proposed redevelopment plan near Grand Avenue that contained the phrase “eminent domain,” due to its history in New Jersey.

Eminent domain typically means that the government can take privately owned land to be used for public use.

Some Leonia residents received letters that said that town officials were going to investigate whether their neighborhood is a “condemnation area in need of redevelopment,” and it if is, the town could take some property by eminent domain. It had some of those residents a little nervous.

“This is all hard-working American people from all different backgrounds that have worked hard to get their piece of the American dream, and it’s been threatened and it's not cool,” says resident Karen Hannon.

Hannon says that she and her husband joined other Leonia residents in the group Leonia United, a newly formed group vowing to fight back any eminent domain takings.

“Nobody gets the right to take away your peace of mind and that's what this boils down to,” she says.

But Leonia officials say that there are no immediate plans to take anyone’s property and that the letter was a legal formality.

“So we're looking at redeveloping something in this area and so all the properties that are here and that are along Fort Lee Road get included in the redevelopment study,” says Leonia Borough Administrator Alex Torpey. “That doesn't mean we would wind up doing redevelopment on the property itself.”

Torpey says that there are some redevelopment plans, such as making the town more walkable, creating more greenspace and new commercial development.

Homeowners have waged eminent domain battles in towns like Long Branch and Atlantic City – places where working class people had to fight against town officials who felt their properties weren’t as desirable as a developer’s vision for it.

Leonia officials ask anyone with questions about the plan to visit the borough website, where there is a detailed Q&A about the proposed development zone.

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