On Thursday, a N.J. Superior Court judge will hold a case management conference on the eminent domain case, Casino Reinvestment Development Authority vs. Charles and Lucinda Birnbaum, et. al.
Charlie Birnbaum’s parents were Holocaust survivors who met in a Polish forest during World War II while hiding from the Nazis. They bought the 1921 brick, three-story apartment building located a few blocks from the Atlantic City boardwalk in 1969.
After the death of his father and the murder of his mother and a home health aide there in 1998, Birnbaum, who lives in Hammonton, N.J., turned the ground floor apartment into a studio for his piano-turning business and rented the top two apartments to longstanding family friends.
But two years ago, the New Jersey Casino Reinvestment Development Authority (CRDA) used its power of eminent domain to file condemnation papers against Birnbaum after he refused an offer to sell the building for $238,500. CRDA said it planned to use the land for the South Inlet Mixed Use Development Project around Atlantic City’s newly opened $2.6 billion Revel Casino Hotel.
Birnbaum told CNSNews.com that he was “affected very deeply that such an action could take place coming out of the blue. Besides the stress, I was quite saddened about the possibility that life as I knew it was being taken away.
"That property represents a great deal of my life and my family’s life,” he continued, explaining why he turned down the offer to sell. “That property also made it feasible for me to continue my piano tuning.”
However, the casino declared bankruptcy earlier this year and announced that it will be closing on Sept. 1.
Despite the planned closure, CRDA “continues to press forward with a cruel, ill-advised and totally unnecessary plan employing eminent domain in a scheme hatched back when the Revel first opened,” according to the Institute for Justice (IJ), which is representing the Birnbaums and posted a video about the case on YouTube.
“There are several legal problems with this attempted condemnation,” IJ senior attorney Robert McNamara told CNSNews.com.
“And one of them is that there’s no particular explanation for why they’re taking Charlie’s property. There’s their acquisition map, and then there’s this little thumb jutting out of the acquisition map, and Charlie’s property is the very tip of that thumb.
“They’re not taking most of the block on which Charlie’s building stands. They’re only taking four buildings on that block. Charlie is the fourth building," he said.
“And there’s no explanation for why this little thumb exists. CRDA can’t tell us why they drew the map this way. CRDA can’t tell us why they’re taking Charlie’s house instead of the large apartment building directly adjacent to Charlie’s house. And so that is a permanent legal flaw in their theory of the condemnation, but it’s not the only one,” he noted.
“For example, they also have no explanation for why they’re taking any of this property. [In] New Jersey, if you’re going to use eminent domain, it has to be for what’s called a ‘public use’. And in this case, state officials have no use whatsoever in mind for this land, and they admit that.
"What they want to do is take a bunch of land, knock down everything on it, and then think very hard about what kind of development might go there.
“They’re basically creating a land bank. A California court described a similar plan once as ‘take first, decide what to do with the property later.’ And that’s the kind of thing that courts routinely reject all across the country,” McNamara added.
CNSNews.com asked CRDA why it was proceeding with the condemnation of Birnbaum's property even though the casino is closing.
"The property is part of an approved mixed-use development project within the Atlantic City Tourism District, which was established by statute to advance important public policy objectives for Atlantic City and the region," CRDA executive director John Palmieri said in a statement. "Development of this project is part of an overall plan for the South Inlet area of the Tourism District and is not dependent on the operations or existence of the Revel Casino Resort."
But McNamara pointed out that there's a large parcel of vacant land directly across the street that the agency could redevelop without tearing down Birnbaum's building.
“It’s hard to come up with a more outrageous condemnation than this,” he added. “Usually, there’s at least some semblance of a plan in place, however crazy that plan may be. Usually, there’s at least an expectation of what government is intending to put somewhere. Usually, the government can articulate a justification for why it should own this land now instead of you.
“The government here can do none of that,” McNamara told CNSNews.com. “Their position is basically that they would rather the property be vacant and theirs rather than useful and Charlie’s. And that’s simply unconscionable.”