In the campaign to separate an Atlantic City piano tuner from his family's home, a New Jersey judge has changed his tune.
Superior Court Judge Julio Mendez ruled Wednesday that Charlie Birnbaum will not be forced to surrender the three-story brick residence, which houses his tuning business, to the state's casino-development arm.
Reflecting on the beleaguered state of the Jersey Shore town, Mendez ruled that the state's Casino Reinvestment Development Authority (CRDA), which attempted to take the land through eminent domain, cannot proceed unless it delivers within six months a concrete plan to follow through with the land's redevelopment.
Last November, Mendez said the state's intention _ folding the land into a tourism district in the wingspan of the now-closed Revel Casino Hotel _ was enough to warrant the seizure. But after hearing the 68-year-old Birnbaum express his desire to stay and his protests over the state's lack of specific plans, Mendez changed his mind.
"The court shares Birnbaum's concern about the uncertainty of the various plans for Atlantic City's recovery and the ability of the CRDA to implement the plan that justifies the taking of the Birnbaum property," Mendez wrote in his opinion. "The court lacks confidence that the plans as presented here will be effectuated in light of the uncertainty surrounding Atlantic City, the economic conditions of Atlantic City, and the pending legislation."
In June, the state Senate passed a rescue package of bills aimed at stabilizing the city's dire finances. The legislation is awaiting Gov. Christie's signature.
Mendez added that while many property owners are all too willing to leave the city, "Birnbaum is willing to ride out this period of Atlantic City uncertainty and maintain ownership of the family property."
Birnbaum's attorney Robert McNamara, with the Arlington, Va.-based Institute for Justice, said he thought Mendez showed real concern for the future of the town.
"Certainly with the current state of Atlantic City, it seems like the last thing you would want to do is drive out a property owner who loves his property," McNamara said. "And if there's one thing that everyone can agree on, it's that Atlantic City needs more people who love it, not fewer."
Birnbaum has reason for such strong attachment: His parents, Holocaust survivors, sought refuge in the house, buying it for $16,000 in 1969. His mother was later murdered inside the home.
Seven years ago, Birnbaum was diagnosed with a medical condition that left him incapacitated. He cited the house, and the office on the first floor, as his refuge to physically and emotionally recover.
"So the sanctuary that was to my mother, and to my dad, and what that place has represented," he said, "it's done the same for me."
But Birnbaum said he was not fighting for only sentimental reasons.
"If taking me would jump-start tourism, then I'd almost say, `Take me,' " he said. "But that's not the case. Taking me has absolutely no effect whatsoever on the city getting better or moving forward. If I was in the middle of their project, holding them up, I could see a ... need to get rid of me so that the project could continue."