TRENTON - In a decision that could make it harder for towns around the state to seize land, the New Jersey Supreme Court sided this morning with a Paulsboro landowner who had argued that the Gloucester County borough could not seize his land merely because it was vacant.
The court ruled that seizing land only because it was "not fully productive" and could be better used was unconstitutional. The 7-0 ruling invalidated Paulsboro's decision to include the disputed 63 acres of open space in its redevelopment zone, a first step toward taking the land by eminent domain.
"The New Jersey Constitution does not permit government redevelopment of private property solely because the property is not used in an optimal manner," Chief Justice James Zazzali wrote.
Zazzali wrote that Paulsboro had interpreted New Jersey's 1992 redevelopment law to permit seizure of any property that is "stagnant or not fully productive" yet potentially valuable for "contributing to and serving" the general welfare. But, he added, that definition is too broad, arguably applying to any property operated in a less-than-ideal manner.
Zazzali ruled that the "not fully productive" clause legally applies only to property that has become "stagnant and unproductive because of issues of title, diversity of ownership, or other similar conditions."
He wrote that the state constitution authorized governments to seize and redevelopment only land that was "blighted."
The opinion will be one of the last written by Zazzali, who will reach the mandatory retirement age of 70 on Sunday.
Paulsboro wanted Army Reserve Lt. Col George Gallenthin's land for use in a proposed deepwater port aimed at creating jobs by reinvigorating industrial areas.
Gallenthin, a Woodbury resident, had been in court since 2003 fighting to keep his property and develop it himself, perhaps as a dredge-spoil site.