Judge: New Jersey Can Take Piano Tuner's Home

An Atlantic City piano tuner cannot stop the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority from taking his family home, a state judge ruled Monday.

Superior Court Judge Julio Mendez, who heard final arguments in an Atlantic City courtroom last month, ruled that the state agency can use eminent domain to seize the house in the shadow of the closed Revel Casino Hotel, citing an "appropriate public purpose" for the property.

Owner Charlie Birnbaum, 67, doesn't live in the three-story brick house on Oriental Avenue, but he is there often. He uses the first floor of the building — bought by his parents in 1969 — for his piano-tuning business and rents the top two floors to tenants. The house is one of the few inhabited buildings on the block and overlooks a large swath of vacant land.

Robert McNamara, an attorney representing Birnbaum from the Virginia-based Institute for Justice, has argued that the CRDA doesn't have specific plans for the land, other than take it and "think really hard about what they're going to do with it."

The CRDA argued that it needed the property to create a tourism district and that it is not obligated to disclose what specific stores will occupy the property, court records show. Stuart Lederman, an attorney for the CRDA, said Monday the ruling "upheld the broad powers" that the CRDA has and will allow the agency to continue revitalizing Atlantic City.

McNamara, meanwhile, said the ruling paves the way for an "appalling and outrageous scope of power for any government entity." He said Birnbaum intends to appeal.

"It's not an opinion we intend to let stand," McNamara said. "The upshot of this opinion is that the CRDA can take anything it wants for any reason or no reason. If this ruling stands, there is literally no piece of property in Atlantic City that is safe from the whims of government officials."

In his opinion, Mendez said the court recognizes Birnbaum's connection to the property but that the CRDA provided an acceptable level of detail in its plans for the area.

"The court acknowledges and empathizes with the Birnbaums' desire to keep this family owned property," he wrote. "On the other hand, the court is satisfied that the CRDA is acting within the statutory framework and objectives of the New Jersey legislature."

Andrew Willis, a spokesman for Brookfield Asset Management, which bought Revel last month out of bankruptcy, declined to comment on Birnbaum's case or what the company envisions for the area around the shuttered building.

"Brookfield has not closed the acquisition of Revel; we are not the owners," Willis said in an email Monday night. "As a result, Brookfield has no comment."

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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