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Democracy, Kelo-Style:

When I first read Kelo, one thing that jumped out at me was the cute and endearing description of the way in which local land-use and redevelopment plans are made and implemented. According to Justice Stevens, all the "stakeholders" get together and thoughtfully and selflessly deliberate on what is best for the community. Then in the end, after thoughtful reflection and soul-searching (but heavens, no politics!), it just turns out that what is good for New London and the Kelo homeowners coincidentally turned out to be exactly what Pfizer wanted. Justice Stevens's warm and cuddly view of local land-use politics took me back in time to my 9th Grade Civics Class where I learned that this is how democracy works (as an aside, strangely enough, I lived in Ann Arbor at the time my 9th grade civics teacher Mrs. Sandalow was married to the Dean of Michigan Law School at the time).

While inspiring and heart-warming, may I gently offer the opinion that Justice Stevens's description of local land-use politics is well, a bit naive? This description seems a bit closer to the mark in describing my impressions of how such decisions are made:

On May 21, Albert G. Mauti Jr. and his cousin Joseph hosted a fundraiser for Assemblyman Joseph Cryan at the Westmount Country Club in Passaic County. The two developers and family members picked up the $10,400 dinner tab, donated another $8,000 and raised more than $70,000 that night for the powerful Union County Democrat, according to state election records.

Three days later, the governing body in Cryan's hometown of Union Township — all Democrats — introduced an ordinance paving the way for the Mautis to build 90 or so townhouses on six acres of abandoned industrial land along the Conrail line in town.

There is just one problem: Union Township doesn't own the land.

It is owned by Carol Segal, a 65-year-old retired electrical engineer. Over the past 10 years, the Union Township resident says, he has spent about $1.5 million to acquire the property, and he, too, wants to build townhouses there.

Segal said he met with Cryan, who is head of the township's Democratic Party, and other local officials "scores of times" over the past five years to discuss the project. He claims the talks turned adversarial after he rejected proposals to work with various developers they proposed.

On May 24, the five-member township committee voted unanimously to authorize the municipality to seize Segal's land through eminent domain and name its own developer.

"They want to steal my land," Segal said. "What right do they have when I intend to do the exact same thing they want to do with my property?"

Cryan, 44, a rising star in state Democratic politics, denied any connection between the fundraiser and the committee's vote. He described the Mautis as "good friends," but said he played no role in shaping the township's redevelopment plan.

Tony Soprano, call your office.

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