TRENTON - Attorneys for a Gloucester County landowner yesterday asked the state Supreme Court to more narrowly define when towns can seize land for redevelopment.
The case, which lawyers said was the first challenge heard by the high court of a 1992 state redevelopment law, centers on 63 acres of woods, wetlands and open space in Paulsboro just across the Delaware River from Philadelphia International Airport.
Paulsboro officials want the land for use in a proposed deepwater port aimed at creating jobs by reinvigorating industrial areas.
But the landowner, Army Reserves Lt. Col. George Gallenthin, of Woodbury, has been in court since 2003 to keep his land and try to develop it himself, perhaps as a dredge-spoil site.
A win by Gallenthin could make it more difficult for towns around the state to use eminent domain for redevelopment, lawyers said.
Paulsboro's legal reason for including Gallenthin's land in its redevelopment zone? Designating the land as blighted because it is "not fully productive."
Ronald Chen, New Jersey's public advocate, who has joined Gallenthin's case, says that criteria - part of the 1992 redevelopment law - is far too broad and violates the state constitution.
The ability to take property merely because it is "not fully productive" has become a "wild card . . . that can expand and contract" to seize any piece of land in New Jersey, Chen said. It could even apply to Drumthwacket, the governor's mansion in Princeton, he said.
Gallenthin's attorney, Peter Dickson, argued that open space and farmland did not equal blight. He added that the town still had no concrete plan for Gallenthin's land.
But Paulsboro has a right to assemble property for a project that could bring jobs and tax revenue to the borough, even if plans are unfinished, argued Robert Goldsmith, an attorney for the League of Municipalities.
"This property has contributed nothing to the community," Goldsmith told the justices. "This is about the greater good."
Paulsboro attorney M. James Maley said the land was properly declared blighted. It is underutilized, he said, and adjacent to a former chemical- and oil-storage complex on the Delaware River that is now slated to be transformed into the bulk of the port project. Part of Gallenthin's land may become a connector road between the port and Interstate 295; his lawyers say the wetlands may make it difficult for anyone to develop.
The mayor of Paulsboro is Democratic Assemblyman John Burzichelli, who has led a legislative effort to overhaul the use of eminent domain for private redevelopment.
Burzichelli's bill preserves the right to take land because it is "not fully productive," but imposes more requirements for studying land and notifying and compensating property owners. Gallenthin's land could still be seized even if the bill becomes law, he said.
He said the port plans were vital to Paulsboro's revitalization, and that "ports need space."
His bill has cleared the Assembly but is stalled in the Senate; Burzichelli said yesterday he expected a version of it to advance by fall. He said he saw no conflict in leading the legislative effort while the Paulsboro case winds through court.
Jeff Tittel, director of the state's Sierra Club, argues that there is indeed a conflict - and said he hoped the Supreme Court would do what the legislature has not: impose more restrictions on eminent domain.
Tittel sees it as a landmark "test case" that could have broad implications for homeowners fighting displacement in areas like Camden, Long Branch and Lodi.
The justices have no deadline to issue a written opinion.