- Associated Press - Tuesday, October 21, 2014

ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. (AP) - The piano-tuner battling to save his family home from being seized through eminent domain looks out the three-story brick house in the shadow of the closed $2.4 billion Revel Casino Hotel and sees one constant in the community: vacant land.

“Every time I’m at the property, I look at it and I look at all the vacant ground around me,” Charlie Birnbaum said. “You need more of nothing? I think they have plenty of nothing in Atlantic City.”

Attorneys for Birnbaum and the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority sparred in court Tuesday over whether the agency can seize the home for development. Birnbaum, 67, doesn’t live in the home his parents bought in 1969, but he’s there often. He uses the first floor for business and rents the top two floors out to tenants.

The judge said he plans to issue a ruling in the case in the coming days.

The CRDA has partnered with companies to push development, such as a project to add outlet stores in the city. But in court Tuesday, Robert McNamara, an attorney representing Birnbaum from the Virginia-based Institute for Justice, argued that the CRDA hasn’t provided specific uses for Birnbaum’s land and said the property would just add vacant space to the city.

“There is no use identified here,” McNamara said. “Courts all across the country uniformly reject takings with this level of vagueness.”

Stuart Lederman, an attorney for the CRDA, said the agency needs the property for a tourism district and can’t disclose what specific stores or uses will make up the land once it’s developed. The property would be part of a mixed-use development project, he said.

“The promotion of tourism in New Jersey is important,” Lederman said. “This court should find that the purpose of taking this property is constitutionally valid because it is a valid public purpose.”

Asked by the judge whether the CRDA specifically needs the Birnbaum property for its project, Lederman said the court could only question the necessity of a particular parcel if there is a showing by the property owner of fraud, bad faith or abuse of discretion on the part of the agency.

“We don’t believe that that’s a place where the court gets to inquire once the public purpose (for the project) is deemed valid,” Lederman said, adding that the CRDA hasn’t “cherry-picked” certain properties.

Birnbaum’s land is one of the few utilized parcels on the block that sits near the closed Revel. The Revel’s new owners, Brookfield Asset Management, have said it will open again as a casino, but haven’t elaborated on other plans.

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