A judge ruled Friday that an Atlantic City man can keep his longtime property, saying the state Casino Reinvestment Development Authority's attempt to take over the building lacked "any specific and viable plans" and was a "manifest abuse of the eminent domain power."
Charles Birnbaum, 69, owns the three-story brick house along Oriental Avenue a block from the ocean. His parents bought it in 1969.
In 1998, an intruder killed his mother and her live-in caretaker there. Birnbaum then created a piano studio in the home to memorialize her, and currently runs his casino piano-tuning business there.
Birnbaum told the Inquirer on Friday that he hopes the decision can help others fight eminent domain, calling it a victory for the "little guy."
"It's been a decision long overdue," he said. "My wife and I were just so grateful and thankful for the outcome."
Superior Court Judge Julio L. Mendez in November 2014 had ruled in favor of the CRDA, then temporarily halted the seizure because of the financial collapse of Atlantic City and its shuttered casinos.
In his ruling Friday, Mendez called the financial crisis in the city "unprecedented," and also cited a history of unsuccessful development projects in that area as reasons for rejecting the CRDA's bid to take Birnbaum's house.
"We are disappointed in the court's ruling," CRDA executive director John Palmieri said in a statement Friday, "and will be examining the opinion to determine our next steps."
The agency, which uses casino revenues to fund development, had planned to demolish Birnbaum's home to make way for what it envisioned as a "mixed-use" development of houses, boutiques, and restaurants.
The shuttered Revel casino hotel, which looms over Birnbaum's house, was considered the centerpiece of the development.
Birnbaum lives with his wife, Cindy, in Hammonton; he rents the second and third floors of the Atlantic City home to longtime tenants. He runs his piano business on the first floor.
Birnbaum said he was stunned to learn several years ago that the CRDA wanted his property. Its plan, he said, was not well thought out.
His attorney, Robert McNamara, called Friday's ruling a victory for common sense.
"The CRDA's position was that they could take Charlie's property for any reason or for no reason, just because they wanted it," McNamara said in a statement. "Today's ruling emphatically says otherwise."
This is not the first time Atlantic City homeowners have fought against development on their properties.
Vera Coking, who bought a home in the city in 1961 for $20,000, reportedly turned down millions from Donald Trump, who wanted her house for a limousine staging area for the now-closed Trump Plaza casino-hotel. In one interview, Coking, a widow, called Trump "a maggot, a cockroach, and a crumb." She then successfully resisted state efforts on behalf of Trump to take the property by eminent domain.
Coking eventually moved to a retirement home in California. Her house was sold at an auction in 2014 for $583,000. The buyer was Carl Icahn, owner of the Tropicana and Trump Taj Mahal casinos, who demolished the house.
Birnbaum said he wants to continue his work in Atlantic City. He still loves the area, he said, and expects the city will have a rebirth.
"I've always wanted to be part of things coming back," he said. "And now I have that chance again."