ATLANTIC CITY - Charlie Birnbaum, the piano tuner who is fighting to keep his family home in Atlantic City from being seized by the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority, delivered a petition Wednesday with more than 100,000 signatures to Gov. Christie.
In addition, Birnbaum's attorneys are now arguing that Christie's plans for Atlantic City make the CRDA's efforts to seize his home even more questionable than when a Superior Court judge ruled the CRDA was within its rights to seize the house.
The petition, which has been gathering signatures on Change.org since early November, includes 7,000 signatures from New Jersey and signatures from as far away as Chile, Greece, Russia, South Africa, and India, according to a news release from Birnbaum's attorneys with the Virginia-based Institute for Justice, which has long fought against eminent domain. The petition had about 102,500 signatures as of Wednesday evening.
"I wish the New Jersey state government would open its eyes to this injustice," Birnbaum said in a statement. "Something like this should never happen anywhere, but especially not here in America."
Birnbaum's petition calls the CRDA action an abuse of eminent domain law that would benefit only developers.
"My parents, both immigrants and survivors of the Holocaust, left me many things: a love of this country, a deep passion for music, and a home right near the Boardwalk in Atlantic City," the petition states. "That home, my parents' foothold in their adopted country, has been a source of love, tragedy, and renewal to my family for the past 50 years. ...
"CRDA is just trying to take my home because it thinks it can."
Superior Court Judge Julio Mendez ruled Nov. 17 against Birnbaum, concluding that New Jersey's Tourism District legislation provided sufficient justification for the CRDA to pursue its seizure of Birnbaum's house on Oriental Avenue, in the shadow of the now-closed Revel casino.
Birnbaum lives in Hammonton with his wife, but uses the Atlantic City home as a base for his piano-tuning business. The top two floors are rented out.
Birnbaum's parents were Holocaust survivors who purchased the home in 1969 for $16,000. His mother and a caretaker were killed in the home during a robbery in 1998. Despite that, Birnbaum has sought to preserve his parents' legacy in the home, keeping its pale-pink painted walls and playing the grand piano in its sunny parlor a block from the ocean. As nearby casinos have closed and the city's economy has cratered, Birnbaum's attorneys have challenged the necessity of the seizure of his home.
CRDA attorney Stuart Lederman has argued that the land was still needed for the mixed-use retail and residential development the state envisions for the area. Richard Stockton College recently purchased the former Showboat casino nearby.
Birnbaum's attorneys argue in their request for reconsideration before Mendez that the plan put forth last month by Christie adviser Jon Hanson called for a reduced role for the CRDA and redirected much of its reinvestment tax fund to pay off Atlantic City's outstanding debt.
"The status and future of the Tourism District and the role of the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority in the revitalization efforts in Atlantic City are in serious question now," wrote Birnbaum attorney Peter Dickson.
The CRDA responded to the motion, saying that it was not a justification for Mendez to rehear the case and that the proposed changes to the CRDA were only proposals and could not form the basis of a ruling.
Lederman, the CRDA attorney, further countered that even with the proposed expansion of the Tourism District, the uncertainty of the casino economy, and changes to the CRDA's mission, the CRDA would still be targeting Birnbaum's property for redevelopment.
A hearing is scheduled for Jan. 13 before Mendez. The governor's office did not respond to a request for comment.