By Seth Grossman, Political Columnist
An old man who had lost everything in Poland during World War II lived in my Atlantic City neighborhood.?? But in America, he had become a successful builder.?? He bought an old house near the beach block and remodeled it.?? And he bought a large vacant lot next door on the corner.?
That empty lot was so big, and had such perfect location, that dozens of people approached the old man every year and offered to buy it.?? But the old man never sold it.??? Instead, he used as a garden to grow tomatoes, apples, grapes and figs.??? He got special pleasure keeping that tropical fig tree alive through the cold Atlantic City winters.??? He lovingly wrapped up the tree every fall, and carefully removed the insulation every spring.? Every summer, he shared the delicious freshly picked figs with the neighbors.?
I moved away from Atlantic City many years ago, and I forgot about the old man and his fig tree.???? But I thought about? him last month when I read about “redevelopment” in Somers Point, and hearings before the city’s Planning Board.?
According to Abraham Lincoln, America was ?conceived in liberty? with our? Declaration of Independence.?? In 1776 Americans proclaimed to the world that we are all endowed by our Creator with certain “unalienable” rights.??? Those rights include the basic right of all of us to keep and enjoy the houses we work and save so hard for.?? (If you are not familiar with this idea, please click here.)?? But too many government officials, and the people who bankroll their campaigns, would not recognize the American liberty of our founding fathers if they tripped over it. The proof is Somers Point “redevelopment”.?
Most Somers Point officials believe they have the right to use eminent domain, special spot zoning, and tax breaks to force property owners along Bay Avenue to either follow their goofy “redevelopment” plan, or get bought out or forced out.?
How can officials who take an oath to uphold the Constitution blatantly ignore its most basic protections??? According to New Jersey law, all they have to do is declare that a neighborhood is “in need of redevelopment”.?? And that is what Somers Point officials did with the Bay Avenue neighborhood.?
Most Bay Avenue homeowners don’t think their neighborhood needs government “redevelopment”.?? They claim their houses are well maintained, and that property values are rising.? They sued and demanded that their local officials prove a need for not letting them control their own property.?
The City responded by hiring Susan Gruel, a “redevelopment expert”.??? This “expert” testified before the Planning Board? that the Bay Avenue neighborhood was “obsolete” and that the neighborhood was “stagnant”.? Her “proof” was that “Anybody that goes out there would agree. . . that it is an underused area and has great potential. . . It is an area that has not reached its productivity. . . It does not contribute to the welfare of the community”.?
Are you OK with those remarks??? If you are, it means that in America today,? the government can? take the vacant lot of someone like that old man in Atlantic City any time it wants.? After all, if the “welfare of the community” is now the test for taking away someone?s property, who can deny that a fancy condo provides more jobs and taxes for the community, than the fig tree of one old man??
If we in America no longer understand and respect our Constitution enough to protect that dear old man and his fig tree, God help us.