ATLANTIC CITY — A Superior Court Judge ruled Friday that the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority abused its power in trying to acquire piano tuner Charlie Birnbaum’s long-time family home on Oriental Avenue through condemnation.
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The agency’s attempt to take the property was “a manifest abuse of the eminent domain power,” according to the ruling by Atlantic County Superior Court Judge Julio Mendez. The court battle began when CRDA filed condemnation papers in early 2014 seeking to seize the home Birnbaum inherited from his parents.
“We have the rest of our lives to let it sink in,” said Birnbaum, who now lives in Hammonton. “It’s like watching a miracle unfold. I can share this with anyone who is facing unjustified government action. It’s a legacy I can pass down to my children.”
The agency needed the property as part of proposed development projects in the South Inlet section of the city.
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“We are disappointed in the court’s ruling and will be examining the opinion to determine our next steps,” said John Palmieri, executive director of the authority.
The court said CRDA is “not empowered to condemn a property only to have it sit idly, potentially for years on end, as they wait for [the] right project to present itself,” according to the ruling. “This has already happened in many of the surrounding properties that sit vacant waiting for a project to come forward.”
Birnbaum was represented in the case by the Institute for Justice, an advocacy group.
“This is a victory for property rights, common sense, and the people of New Jersey,” said Robert McNamara, a senior attorney at the Institute for Justice. “CRDA’s position was that they could take Charlie’s property for any reason or for no reason, just because they wanted it. Today’s ruling emphatically says otherwise.”
In 2014, Mendez gave the agency permission to take the property for fair-market value as part of a larger eminent domain campaign executed by the CRDA in the city's South Inlet section.
Then in 2015, the judge reconsidered that decision, giving the CRDA 180 days to explain what, precisely, it wanted to do with building.
Birnbaum’s attorneys then said that CRDA shouldn't be allowed to take the man's property based on no more than an insistence that the agency is pursuing commercial and residential development in the area.
In 1969, Birnbaum's parents bought the red-brick building at the center of the case. The second and third floors of his Atlantic City property are rentals. The first floor is used for his piano tuning business. The building is valued at $310,000 by the city's tax assessor.
““The CRDA wasn’t trying to take this property because it was needed for anything, the CRDA was trying to take it because it could, and the judge saw right through that,” said Dan Alban, an attorney for the institute. “Instead, the history of failed government redevelopment projects in Atlantic City demonstrated that this project was likely to be just another such failure.”