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Tuesday, September 05, 2006 

Another Assault on Property Rights

I got the link to this story e-mailed to me by a reader. I appreciate everyone who sends me links. Even if you think "oh, well he's must've seen this," send it anyway. I might have missed it.

This story in the Weekly Standard concerns a battle by one family to save their farm. They have been thrust into the spotlight lately. This is partially because Logan Darrow Clements has taken interest in their plight. Clements was the guy behind the Lost Liberty Hotel, a revenge plan formulated against Justice David Souter for his vote in the Kelo v New London eminent domain case. Since that failed, he has decided to make a movie about eminent domain abuse. That brought him to Piscataway, New Jersey and the farm of the Halper family.

Guess what? The city wants their farm...
The township has made feints at taking the Halper property for decades. In 1975, it actually did force the Halpers to sell 25 acres, which Piscataway added to an adjoining park. But the current festivities got underway in earnest in 1998. Around that time, the city purportedly grew nervous that some of its last privately owned green space might fall into the hands of ghastly developers, the kind that are regularly found in bed with the local politicians, making New Jersey a notorious "pay to play" state.
From the look of things, plenty of people are making hefty profits selling Piscataway real estate off to the highest bidder. But to the city's thinking, the Halpers shouldn't be among them. They only worked the farm for nearly a century, why should they make money off it? Never mind that they'd received unsolicited offers for their land for decades and managed not to sell. Piscataway officials were coming after their property anyway, vowing to maintain it as "open space." An incredulous Clements asks what could be "more 'open space' than a farm?"
The lengthy legal battle began, but things just started to get interesting.

Here's a little old fashioned New Jersey corruption...
In this climate, the plot thickened in the Halper case with the involvement of one David D'Amiano, a Democratic fundraiser and friend of then-governor Jim McGreevey. He is currently serving two years in prison after pleading guilty to two counts of mail fraud. The original 11-count indictment against him included bribery and extortion. The victim of his alleged extortion was the Halper family, until Larry's brother Mark wore a wire on behalf of the feds.

When the county initially offered the family a paltry $3 million to join the Farmland Preservation Program (private developers had offered close to $14 million for the land), D'Amiano--a middle man with no official connection or title--got involved, telling Mark that for direct cash payments to him and donations to the Democratic State Committee, he could help the Halpers preserve their farm, or at least get them a better deal.
Then came the not-so-vague death threats and all that other good stuff.

Obviously, Larry Halper is upset about losing his farm and home...
"At the same time that they're stealing my farm for 'open space,' they're developing five other farms or nurseries in town. . . . They're nothing more than whores. Their parents were whores. Their grandparents were whores. Their kids are probably going to be whores." Larry's not taking it well.
It's hard to blame him for feeling that way. He's got an attachment to the land. It's his home. The city thinks that open space is a better use for the land though. Unfortunately for the Halpers, the police power of the states (delegated to municipalities) gives government officials broad powers to decide preferred uses for land. Fighting this in court can be incredibly difficult. The legal battle isn't cheap either...
The city condemned the Halper farm in 2004 and gave the family $4.3 million, of which Halper won't touch his share. "I don't want their money," he says. "I want my farm back." Split twelve ways after taxes, it doesn't go very far; plus, his family, he estimates, has run up close to a million dollars in legal fees over the years. At this moment, Larry and Clara alone have four sets of lawyers handling everything from compensation to environmental issues to conflict-of-interest appeals.
This is an interesting point about eminent domain cases...
While the $4.3 million offer resulted from the city's own assessment of the property, the Halpers say their land is worth exponentially more, and more still considering that they don't want to sell.
You only get "fair market value" for your property. It certainly might be worth more of that. The money doesn't take into account other factors, like sentimental value. The government usually gets the property at a good price... for them. This is nice too...
A jury has found the city's math skills lacking, and said the Halpers were due $18 million. A judge has ordered the local government to pay an additional $8 million, which is in escrow and untouchable by the Halpers, since Piscataway is still appealing. The township's attorney actually had the nerve to argue that recent real estate appreciation shouldn't be a factor since Piscataway's condemnation of the Halper farm has lessened its value.
That's a lawyer argument if I ever heard one.

The story goes on in detail. It's quite long, but author Matt Labash has a great writing style and captures the events compellingly. There is also a final note that Justice Souter ought to take note of...
If David Souter thought his house was safe, he'd better think again. Clements says he has found a loophole in New Hampshire statute XXXIX, chapter 423, that allows a town to seize land outside its borders for an airport, meaning that he can work around Souter's hometown of Weare. Plans for the Lost Liberty Hotel have been transformed into plans for the Lost Liberty Airport (motto: Live Free or Fly). Clements says he has already lined up sympathetic selectmen in another town, which he is keeping under wraps until everybody's ready to move. He allows that he might've acted too impulsively the first time around. "Last time I just said I'm going to do this in Weare without asking anyone in Weare if they wanted to get on board."
Justice Breyer is also in Clements' sights. Realistically, this isn't going anywhere. Clements may be a bit of a goof, but it's good that someone is trying to raise awareness about this issue.

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