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November 06, 2005
Eminent Domain in N.J. - Now They Just Steal Land
Union Township, N.J. -- Carol Segal has a problem: He wants to build townhouses on the six acres of land he owns in New Jersey's Union Township and has contracted with a developer to build 100 townhouses there.
But the township government wants to develop the property themselves, and - incredibly - they have voted to take his land through the eminent domain process and let a local developer with political connections do the job.
"They want to steal my land," Segal told the Newark Star-Ledger. "What right do they have when I intend to do the exact same thing they want to do with my property?"
According to the Star-Ledger, Segal, a 65-year-old retired electrical engineer, has spent about $1.5 million to acquire the property over the past 10 years and has been dickering with township officials over the past five years about his development plans. He claims negotiations fell apart after he refused to use the developers that township officials wanted him to use.
At that point, on May 24, the five-member township committee voted unanimously to authorize the municipality to seize Segal's land through eminent domain and name its own developer, AMJM Development, paving the way for the developer to build 90 or so townhouses on Segal's land, according to the Star Ledger.
After that vote, Segal sued the township, and on Sept. 7 a Superior Court judge in Union County issued a temporary restraining order prohibiting the township from hiring its own developer. Six days later, the township committee unanimously voted to start negotiating - but not sign a contract - with AMJM Development.
In the meantime, Segal signed a contract last week to sell his property to Centex Homes for about $13 million, contingent upon local approval. The Star-Ledger described Centex as a nationally known developer with projects in New Jersey's Middlesex, Morris and Monmouth counties. Centex plans to build 100 townhouses on Segal's property, and expects to earn some $15 million to $20 million, Segal told the newspaper.
Township Mayor Joseph Florio and Deputy Mayor Peter Capodice, both members of the township committee, told the Star Ledger they were unaware of Segal's involvement with Centex when they voted Sept. 13 to negotiate with the Mauti family, who own AMJM Development. But a proposal Centex submitted to the township committee on Sept. 1 said the company "has been in negotiations with (Segal) for quite some time."
When the item came up at the Sept. 13 meeting, the committee did not allow Segal's attorney to speak before the vote was taken.
Florio and Capodice told the newspaper they preferred AMJM because it is a local company. "I've never heard of Centex," Capodice said. "They're not Union County people."
This is where it gets sticky. Segal charges that last May 21, Albert G. Mauti Jr. and his cousin Joseph hosted a fundraiser for Assemblyman Joseph Cryan at the Westmount Country Club in Passaic County. The two developers and family members picked up the $10,400 dinner tab, donated another $8,000 and raised more than $70,000 that night for Cryan, a powerful Union County Democrat, according to state election records. Three days later, the township officials -- all Democrats -- introduced their eminent domain land grab.
According to the Star-Ledger, Cryan, 44, is "a rising star in state Democratic politics." While he holds no official position in Union Township government, he has been chairman of the local Democratic Party since 1995. He told the newspaper there was no connection between the fundraiser and the committee's vote and described the Mautis simply as "good friends," insisting moreover that he had nothing to do with shaping the township's redevelopment plan.
"My involvement is zero," Cryan told the Star-Ledger. He said he met with Segal no more than five times, and it was always at his legislative office. All discussions, he said, were initiated by Segal, and insisted that at no time did he recommend developers.
He added that his message to Segal was, "I can't help you. I don't make those decisions; the governing body does." His claim was disputed by Union County GOP Chairman Philip Morin, who told the Star-Ledger "Joe Cryan is intimately involved in even the most mundane decisions in Union Township."
Moreover, both Florio and Capodice admitted to the Star-Ledger that they have discussed the development project with Cryan, but neither could recall whether he expressed an opinion on the matter. Cryan said his discussions with committee members about the property are best characterized as him asking about the project's status.
Cryan's name also surfaced in connection with a change of language in the first draft of the development proposal for Segal's property, submitted in January, which directed officials "to work with any property owner within the redevelopment area."
The Star-Ledger reports that this language was removed from the final plan introduced May 24, which authorizes the township to choose its own developer. Florio and Capodice said they don't know why the language was changed; but both versions were written by an outside engineering firm hired by the township, T&M Associates of Middletown, which contributed $1,000 to Cryan at the May fundraiser.
Stanley Slachetka, the T&M employee who wrote the plans, declined comment to the Star-Ledger. Segal told the newspaper the township first expressed interest in his property in 2000, when committee member Anthony Terrezza called to set up a meeting - the first of many over the years. Segal said that at times he met with Terrezza and Cryan together, other times separately.
During the meetings, Segal said, the two politicians would recommend people to either buy the land or develop it in partnership.
"They made it clear I needed them to get it done," Segal told the newspaper, adding that he didn't like the deals they offered, and said he told them he wanted to develop the land himself. Around April, Segal said, the meetings stopped.
"At first, I thought we were working together," Segal said. "Now I realize they were trying to steal my land the whole time."
Terrezza did not return the Star-Ledger's calls for comment - nor did Committee members Brenda Restivo and Clifton People Jr.
Albert Mauti, a Staten Island resident, also denied any connection between the country club fundraiser and the committee vote; he claims he was simply supporting a local politician he likes and admires. His development plan, he said, "has nothing to do with Joe Cryan" he told the Star Ledger. But Mauti originally had told the newspaper that he never spoke to Cryan about the development.
When pressed, however, he said he may have but doesn't recall. But Cryan said he did speak to Mauti about the project, but it was just him inquiring how Mauti was progressing.
Despite the ordinance taking the property from Segal, Cryan did admit that he disagreed with the township's attempt to use eminent domain in this case: "It would be hugely unfair if they go in and use eminent domain to take his property," he said.Posted by Coalition Webbies at November 6, 2005 07:55 AM