ATLANTIC CITY - Superior Court Judge Julio Mendez ruled Monday against Charlie Birnbaum, a piano tuner fighting to keep his family home near the former Revel casino from being seized by the state casino redevelopment authority.
In a 27-page opinion issued Monday evening, Mendez said the state's enactment of the Tourism District Act is "the legislative declaration of a legitimate public purpose" that would justify the seizure of property by eminent domain.
"The fundamental public purpose contained in this legislation is to promote tourism, to create and protect jobs in Atlantic City, and to assist the ailing gaming industry," Mendez wrote.
Mendez said he would wait 45 days before signing a "declaration of taking" of the home at 311 Oriental Ave. as requested by the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority (CRDA), which will allow Birnbaum to appeal the ruling.
"It's a deep, deep disappointment that our family is feeling right now," Birnbaum, 67, said Monday night. He said he would appeal the decision, which his attorneys called "appalling and outrageous."
The court's upholding of the Tourism District Act as a public purpose justifying eminent domain comes as Gov. Christie considers whether to expand the district to the entire city of Atlantic City.
The case has garnered attention as the CRDA pursued Birnbaum's three-story house - he rents out the top two floors and uses the ground floor for his piano-tuning business - even as the two nearby casinos, Revel and Showboat, shut down amid a general cratering of the industry in Atlantic City.
Birnbaum, a gravelly voiced son of Holocaust survivors whose mother was murdered in the home, refused an offer of $238,500 for the building. He said the connection to his parents was too strong to give the house up to the government absent a concrete purpose for it. His parents sought refuge in the house, buying it for $16,000 in 1969. He and his wife live in Hammonton.
CRDA attorney Stuart Lederman said the ruling upholds the authority's right to take property to pursue its tourism and redevelopment goals.
"The court found that the promotion of New Jersey tourism is a legitimate public purpose," Lederman said. "The CRDA looks forward to continuing with its obligation to revitalize Atlantic City."
Birnbaum attorney Robert McNamara of the Virginia-based Institute for Justice said the ruling opens up the entire city to possible seizure.
"The upshot of today's ruling is that the CRDA can take any piece of property in Atlantic City for any reason or for no reason," McNamara said.
He said the level of power the judge accords the CRDA - an authority that collects a 1.25 percent tax on casino revenue for redevelopment projects - was a violation of the Constitution of New Jersey: "It's no exaggeration to say that under this decision, no piece of property is safe from the whims of a bureaucrat who can imagine some day putting something better there."
But Mendez wrote that once a public purpose is established, "deference" must be given to the government body to decide which properties it needs for its plans.
"This court finds that the legislation speaks loud and clear ... and that justifies the actions of the CRDA in taking the Birnbaum property."
Birnbaum said he was grateful to the Institute for Justice, a group that has fought against eminent domain in cases around the country, for taking his case.
"Here we had a chance to have our voice heard," Birnbaum said. "The house would have been rubble six months ago."
Birnbaum's attorneys argued that the CRDA had no specific plan for Birnbaum's property that, absent a finding of blight, would justify the taking.
But Mendez said the Tourism District's Master Plan and its "South Inlet Mixed Use Development Project" contained sufficient specificity to justify the taking of the property, even absent a redeveloper or concrete plans for the area.
The CRDA originally sought the property, one block from the Boardwalk, as part of a plan to redevelop the mostly vacant neighborhood around the Revel, which is closed and has been sold.
Its plan envisions a mixed-use development including restaurants, boutiques, housing uses that "tie into the open space greenway of the Lighthouse District Park," and potential use for a higher educational site within the Inlet. Richard Stockton College has since agreed to purchase the former Showboat, also in that neighborhood.
"This court acknowledges and empathizes with the Birnbaums' desire to keep this family-owned property," Mendez wrote. "On the other hand, the court is satisfied that the CRDA is acting within the statutory framework and objectives of the New Jersey legislature."