ATLANTIC CITY, NJ — A state agency and casino mogul Donald Trump once partnered to seize an elderly widow’s home in order to build a limousine parking lot for Trump’s clients.
The state and the billionaire businessman came together in an insidious assault on private property owner Vera Coking, who had lived in her Atlantic City boarding home off the boardwalk for more than three decades. Mrs. Coking had raised her children there before the passing of her husband, and before the area was surrounded by towering casinos and debauchery.
In 1994, with Trump Plaza now located across the street, Mrs. Coking’s home was targeted for confiscation via eminent domain. Donald Trump wanted to acquire the property for a “limousine waiting area” — a private parking lot for his customers. Trump convinced his crony associates in the New Jersey Casino Reinvestment Development Authority (CRDA) that this was sufficient form of “public use” and moved forward with a suit against Mrs. Coking.
On May 6, 1994, Mrs. Coking received a letter from CRDA stating that her property had been “appraised” at a fraction of what she had previously been offered and informed her that she had 30 days to accept the rock bottom settlement before the CRDA took her to the Superior Court “to acquire your property through CRDA’s power of eminent domain.”
CRDA Executive Director Nicholas Amato wrote Mrs. Coking a letter dated May 24, 1994, stating in capital letters, “YOU MAY BE REQUIRED TO MOVE WITHIN 90 DAYS AFTER YOU RECEIVE THIS NOTICE. IF YOU REMAIN IN POSSESSION OF THE PROPERTY AFTER THAT TIME, CRDA MAY BE ABLE TO HAVE YOU AND YOUR BELONGINGS REMOVED BY THE SHERIFF.”
Coking could not believe that the government had the power to throw her out of her home in order to benefit Donald Trump. She fought the seizure, stating, “This is my home. This is my castle.”
CRDA’s attempts to take these properties violate the New Jersey and U.S. Constitutions. First, taking property from one person to give to another is not a “public” purpose.
“The necessity that the use shall be public excludes the idea that the property may be taken . . . and ultimately conveyed and appropriated to a private use.”
Atlantic City won’t own the limousine lot or grassy area; Trump will, and he can convert them into whatever he wants once this project is completed. Nothing can stop Trump from turning around the day after the park is completed to tear it up and build another casino.
Second, condemning these properties is totally unnecessary. Under New Jersey law, government may not take more property than it needs for the public use. Even the CRDA enabling statute states that it can exercise eminent domain only when property is “necessary” for project completion and “required” for a public purpose. N.J.S.A. 5:12-182(b). Because the casino and hotel project were successfully completed without these properties, they manifestly are not necessary.
Third, New Jersey has unconstitutionally delegated its condemnation power to private parties. The New Jersey legislature delegated the power to CRDA. CRDA then defers to casinos that apply for funding to determine which private homes and businesses will be torn down. It must get approval from the casino before issuing a notice of condemnation. If the casino decides it doesn’t want that property, CRDA won’t condemn it.
Finally, these condemnations are an unreasonable and abusive use of government power. Over the last ten years, New Jersey courts have begun to recognize that local governments can and do misuse their power over people’s property. Atlantic City wants to take Vera Coking’s home of 36 years, the Sabatinis’ 32 year-old business, and the Banins’ thriving jewelry and gold business and give them to Trump to install a place for limousines to wait for high-rolling patrons at the casino and a large lawn that few will ever use. It’s hard to come up with a more frivolous use of the power of eminent domain.
“In life, you have a thing called condemnation,” Donald Trump bloviated in an interview with John Stossel. “And cities have the right to condemn for the good of a city, whether it’s New York, whether it’s Los Angeles, whether it’s any other place. Atlantic City is one of those cities and it’s got the right to condemn.”
“Everybody coming into Atlantic City sees that property,” Trump continued. “And it’s not fair to Atlantic City and the people. They’re staring at this terrible house instead of staring at beautiful fountains and beautiful other things that would be good.”
After over three years of fighting back against the corrupt billionaire and the state, Mrs. Coking won her case in the New Jersey Superior Court and was allowed to stay in her cherished home. Superior Court Judge Richard Williams ruled that the attempted seizure wasn’t for a legitimate “public purpose,” such as a road or utility, but was instead “overwhelmed by the private benefit.” As such, the use of eminent domain was considered unconstitutional in this case.
Although justice was done for Mrs. Coking (if you discount the huge hassle and legal expenses), many other private property owners have been abused in the exact same way, and lost. A few years after this case, the U.S. Supreme Court infamously ruled in favor of this type of eminent domain seizure (!) in the landmark defeat for property rights, Kelo v. City of New London (2005).
To no one’s surprise, Mr. Trump voiced approval of the egregious Kelo decision, saying, “I happen to agree with it 100 percent,” in an interview with Neil Cavuto [Fox News, 19 July 2005].
As Donald Trump is now polling favorably for office of president, voters should carefully consider the character of a man who would gladly trample individual rights for his own personal gain. His record shows him to be a supporter of abusive bureaucracies and an enemy of the Bill of Rights.