The City Council voted 5-4 on Wednesday to authorize the use of eminent domain to acquire a 1-acre stretch of privately owned land in the 4th Ward, despite complaints from a property owner who is using the land for a parking lot. Public officials who supported the measure have said that there’s a desperate need to create a park in the southwest part of town, which is home to the public housing projects and several industrial properties.
The council deliberated for over two hours, weighing a measure that Mayor Dawn Zimmer had previously called “one of the biggest votes we’re going to have.”
Eminent domain allows the city to negotiate with a property owner to buy the property for public use. If negotiations fail, the city can take over the property and pay what the courts determine is a fair price.
“Ten years of development [has occurred] in this town with few parks to show for it.” – Councilman Peter Cunningham
The 1-acre parcel is owned by Ponte Equities, Inc., and could fulfill part of a master plan, SW6, which intends to create a 6-acre park in the southwest section of the city.
Zimmer said that negotiations will continue “in good faith” with Ponte Equities.
Residents packed the council chambers to express their opinion.
“Parks big or small contribute to the vibrancy of communities,” said resident Jim Vance, a member of the Hoboken Southwest Parks coalition. “We are overrun with inadequate park space. We really have a park crisis here.”
But resident Franz Paetzold said that subjecting property owners to eminent domain is unethical.
“I think we should consider a better route,” said Paetzold. “I think it’s pretty clear to me that the mayor is breaking the [Golden] Rule.”
Some of those who opposed the measure said they were in favor of parks, but not eminent domain.
“Eminent domain should only be used when the negotiations have been exhausted,” said Occhipinti. “This is not the case here.”
Use it or not?
Following the public hearing of the ordinance the council argued over whether the city should have continued negotiating without the authorization of eminent domain. Each member of the council agreed for the need of a park in the southwest.
Cunningham said that he felt there was a trend of more and more developers shying away from converting their property into parks.
“Ten years of development [has occurred] in this town with few parks to show for it,” said Cunningham. “Now is the time to take action and use this tool [eminent domain authorization] to negotiate and acquire these lands. If negotiations unfortunately fail, then we will take the action that we’re talking about.”
Another major focus of the discussion was the funds related to the acquisition of the park.
The city has been facing a looming deadline for a $3 million county open space grant intended for the acquisition of the southwest park. They have often cited this deadline as cause to take action on acquiring land.
Russo said that he feels that the deadline doesn’t create as much pressure as is perceived by the administration.
“Your fear was that we’re going to lose that $3 million,” said Russo. “That’s not the case. We have the opportunity to extend that grant money and move this process forward through some real negotiations without using the power of eminent domain.”
The debate led to a cameo appearance from County Freeholder Anthony Romano, a Hoboken resident, who explained the extension process for county grants.
“There would have to be a request made by the city of Hoboken to the county executive [and] freeholder board,” said Romano. “As long as there were valid reasons for the request [it could possibly be extended].”
Councilwoman Giattino said that county officials told her the deadline was inflexible.
“I was told it could not be extended,” said Giattino, “so [you] coming up here tonight and saying [this], I find a little disappointing.”
The comment prompted Romano to yell from the audience, “But it can!”
Assistant Business Administrator Stephen Marks said that the city had requested an extension last year for a grant for a different site and had received a one-time offer of a one-year extension.
“I will personally call the county executive tomorrow and every freeholder and beg them to give us an extension,” said Occhipinti.
“Why haven’t you done that?” asked Cunningham.
Bhalla argued that the council has to have the “guts” to make difficult decisions.
“The 3 million dollar [grant extension] is a complete ruse,” said Bhalla. “I’m not going to wait another six months until my county freeholder board makes a decision.”
Pay the price?
Robert Lipschitz, an attorney for the property owner, said during the public hearing that the property costs will not be as low as the city thinks.
“The reality is, the city’s own appraiser valued this land at over $10 million in 2009,” said Lipschitz, “and really not much has changed since 2009.”
Lipschitz said a jury will eventually decide that the city is on the hook for the full $10 million.
After the ordinance was adopted, Castellano expressed her apprehension with the possible legal implications.
“These people [the property owners] are ready, willing, and able to fight us and that makes me very sad,” said Castellano during the new business portion of the meeting.
Resident Jim Doyle said during the meeting that the council has to look out for the greater interest of the city, not one specific property owner.
Doyle added that the vote was not to condemn land, but only to give the administration a negotiation tool.
Two other areas for parks
The city will also move forward in their attempts to acquire parkland in both the 5th Ward (the northwest section of town) and the 3rd Ward (the center of the west side of town).
The administration would like to acquire the former Henkel/Cognis chemical plant in the northwest section, and the former Pino towing yard.
A resolution was unanimously passed authorizing a contract with McGuire Associates LLC as a real estate appraiser to evaluate specific lots for the potential acquisition of park land. The contract, not to exceed $50,000, will award $150 an hour for appraisers and $175 an hour for company principals, Marks said.
Other matters at the council meeting
Also at the meeting Wednesday night:
-The council approved a resolution authorizing Washington Street between Observer Highway and Newark Street as the location of the Downtown Hoboken Farmers’ Market. The market will be held every Tuesday from June 26 to Nov. 20.
-A resolution was passed amending an existing contract of $239,550 with Louis Barbato Landscaping for additional work on citywide playground improvements. The contract, for an additional $9,256, will allow the city to install additional safety surfaces and concrete repairs for Jackson and Jefferson Street Parks, according to Health and Human Services Director Leo Pellegrini.
-A resolution was passed authorizing St. Ann’s Church to conduct their 102nd annual “Feast of St. Ann” festival from Thursday, July 19 through Thursday, July 26. The famous “feast” is a popular event. Its organizers will erect a bandstand at the corner of Seventh and Jefferson streets; have a procession through the streets of Hoboken; and host food vendors, games, and rides in the church area at 704 Jefferson St.
Stephen LaMarca may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.