Cinnaminson business owner wins court fight to keep her properties

The court ruled the township did not show that her properties posed a risk to the “safety, health, morals, and welfare of the community.”

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Thao Le stands next to a fence and an open area that's her property.

Thao Le stands next to posts that used to hold up a sign that advertised leasing opportunities for a proposed Chick-Fil-A in Cinnaminson Township, N.J. An eminent domain order from the township to take control of two properties she owns were reversed by an appellate court. (P. Kenneth Burns/WHYY)

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A property must not only appear in poor condition to be deemed blighted; it must also significantly harm the community. This, from the Appellate Division of the Superior Court of New Jersey, which ruled in favor of Thao Le.

The court reversed the eminent domain order by Cinnaminson Township, which sought to seize two parcels of her land located off Route 130, south of Highland Avenue.

For more than a year, the township has been trying to take control of the parcels next door to her cabinetry business to aid in building a Chick-Fil-A restaurant and small plaza.

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Tom Juliano, CEO of project developer Delco Development, said securing Le’s properties was “pretty vital,” indicating that the project needed to move forward within the next year. Juliano did not return calls for comment on the court decision. A sign advertising leasing opportunities with the project has since been removed.

“I feel great,” Le said of the court decision. “I feel very pleased, very excited, and very blessed with the decision from the appellate court.”

That sentiment was echoed by her lawyer, Richard DeAngelis Jr. of the firm Connell Foley LLP, who said the lower court’s decision “was contrary to settled law by the New Jersey Supreme Court.”

DeAngelis is referring to a state Supreme Court decision from earlier this year involving a public library in West Orange. The court ruled that the site of the library was wrongly designated by that township as an area in need of redevelopment under the state’s Local Redevelopment and Housing Law, after resident Kevin Malanga challenged the designation.

“The record did not establish that [the library] suffered from obsolescence, faulty arrangement, or obsolete layout in a way that harmed the welfare of the community,” the decision stated. “The township argued that even though the library actively provided services to the residents of West Orange, it could have better served the public if it had more programming and computers, among other things. ‘That laudable concept, by itself, does not satisfy the standards in the LRHL.’”

The Appellate Division heard arguments on Nov. 15 and issued its decision on Dec. 4 citing the Malanga case.

“Malanga may have been about a library, but the legal standard articulated by the Court applies equally here. And the trial judge misapplied that standard,” the court found, adding “the township’s determination was not supported by substantial evidence.”

Timothy Duggan, chairman of the eminent domain and property valuation group at the law firm Stark and Stark, said the decision affirms that even if buildings are vacant and not in good shape, municipalities will have to show that they are “causing harm to the safety, health, morals, and welfare of the community.”

“I think what we could take away from [this] is the New Jersey courts are now really reviewing what these [town] planners are saying and whether or not these municipal decisions are really well supported by proof that the buildings are in bad shape and that is causing some sort of detrimental impact on the community,” said Duggan.

Cinnaminson Mayor Ernest McGill said the township “strongly disagrees” with the appellate court’s decision to reverse its eminent domain order.

“That decision undermines the decision of the trial court as well as the spirit of the Local Redevelopment and Housing Law,” he said.

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McGill was also critical of Le in his statement to WHYY News. He accused her of not maintaining her properties, not paying her property taxes, and “[failing] to be an honest broker.”

“The property owner has generally failed to be a positive member of Cinnaminson Township’s thriving business community,” he said, “The property owner has failed Cinnaminson Township.”

The mayor said the township is considering “all options, including appealing the appellate court’s decision.”

“The township is prepared to take whatever action and legal recourse necessary to hold this property owner accountable for her continued failures and to advocate for our residents and our business community,” McGill continued.

In response, DeAngelis said, “We trust the Township will respect the well-reasoned opinion of the appellate court, based in part on a recent Supreme Court decision that undercut entirely the trial court’s decision here.”

Though she has concerns about the township retaliating against her because of what happened in court, Le is moving forward. She is in the process of preparing a presentation to town officials with her plans to redevelop her properties.

“I’m hoping that we can do that by [the] end of January or beginning of February,” said Le. “We should have our plan to go to the township to make our presentation.”

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