One NJ piano tuner's fight against eminent domain

Chris Moody has a great report at CNN (which sadly hasn’t been getting much traction) on an elderly piano tuner named Charlie Birnbaum. He owns a house down by the Boardwalk in Atlantic City which used to be his family home and is still the workshop for his small business. But it may not be for much longer. As Moody reports, a government agency has gone to court in an attempt to use eminent domain to tear down the house and all the memories it contains. They aren’t doing it to put in a new road or a waste management plant or desalination facility. In fact, they’re still not exactly sure what they want to do with it. They just know they want to kick Charlie out and tear the place down.

The home, an aging but well-kept relic of Atlantic City’s once-thriving past, is owned by 68-year-old Charlie Birnbaum, who has worked as a piano tuner for local casinos for more than 30 years.

Since 2012, his property has been the target of a state agency that aims to use eminent domain to demolish his three-story property to build a yet-to-be-announced tourism village the state says will revitalize the economically struggling area.

The state has put up $238,500 for the property, but Birnbaum refuses to give it up until a court orders him out. And has been fighting for three years to keep it.

While New Jersey’s Casino Reinvestment Development Authority (CRDA) has a general plan for the neighborhood’s revitalization, it has not stated specifically how Birnbaum’s property will be used, a fact on which Birnbaum has made his stand.

Charlie’s story is a touching and yet heartbreaking one. While he may not live there today, it’s the house where he proposed to his wife. It’s where his parents – refugees from the Nazis – finally settled and found their little piece of the American dream. And it may soon be gone. As Moody correctly notes, what we’re looking at here is yet more fallout from one of the worst decisions rendered in the history of the United States Supreme Court… Kelo. It was at that fateful moment that the court decided to suddenly redefine the takings clause, changing the idea of “public use” to mean “public benefit” which opened the door to all sorts of government scheming. In New Jersey, the state government has obviously noticed that door being open and strolled on through.

So where is Governor Chris Christie on this specific case? Well, that’s rather hard to say.

Christie has not spoken about Birnbaum’s fight with the state, but when asked whether he believed eminent domain could be justified to take property from one private owner and give it to another private owner, he suggested the practice was justified depending on the facts of the case.

“It depends upon the circumstances. That is what eminent domain is all about, that’s why we have the ability for people to go to court and work through that,” Christie said during a recent visit to New Hampshire, where he is building support for a possible future presidential campaign. “I can’t give a generalized answer on that. A generalized answer is just sophomoric and I won’t give one.”

If you don’t mind my saying, that’s a rather odd answer to give for somebody who is currently camped out in New Hampshire and in dire need of a big surge there if he has any hope of getting to the White House. The Live Free or Die state takes a very dim view of the government kicking people off their land, particularly when no specific reason is being offered. It’s not exactly a small, limited government outlook, is it? If I’d been tasked to script that answer for him I’d have been talking about eminent domain as an absolute last resort to be used only when a property is absolutely vital to the infrastructure needs of the many, and even then only when the property owner was offered a full, fair value for their land.

Mr. Birnbaum has a problem here. He’s already lost at least one round of appeals in the courts, and with Kelo as precedent, there’s no reason to expect that he will prevail later on. His piano tuning shop my give way to an empty, useless stretch of reclaimed land, just like that property in Connecticut which sits empty to this day. Good luck, sir. You’ll need it.

Here’s a video on Charlie’s story from the Institute for Justice.